VERTICAL SUBURB

 

Part of a Novel

by

Scott Dickerson

 

 

 

 

DESK

 

 1

 


D
emurely respectable,
contemporary in the sense of rough exposed wood and the modest low-slung primness of the 70’s, well-tended for thirty years, the lawn trimmed and kept up and planted and overplanted and replanted. To heal the trod of running, happy children, she thought. Then teenagers and smiling wistful parents, then slow people on walkers, then absence. A nice suburb. It was waiting to be found and they, no, he: found it and she loved it.

It was an estate sale. Theo, never Ted, explained the advantages to her thoroughly enough, but obviously with little hope that she would understand.

Yet she listened smilingly. After escrow closed, there was money left, good money still for a sunshiny future. Rosalie (last name Benson, latterly) doted on that future, and now she had, no, they had, a real home, a detached single-family dwelling in which to dote. There would be children. The single-family would start and expand into a small population of comfortable size. Their income would grow too. They would all advance together to more and larger houses with rooms radiating out like branches on ever-bigger trees, branches clothed in leaves and sometimes tiny flowers drifting down like pink snow.

There was to be no problem with money. He was certain. Given as a casual remark, she took it as a promise. He would be the man and bring home the bacon and she would be the broomstick propping up the wall.

No problem with money. Eight months later she began working.

It was her idea. Theo only hinted, probably unconsciously, through the glaze of disapproval and an unheard murmur of self-reproach, which she thought was sweet. There were mentions of lost opportunities, positions at his office dangled and withdrawn. These are the usual disappointments, she thought, of the world of work. The world of work that men go to, unwillingly, resignedly. And he handled it well, didn’t he? No gloomed withdrawal, no snapping. Actually, Theo never snapped.

“Not at me.” Couldn’t it be, though, that at work husbands become new men, or at least other men; unknown and strange to their wives...

An exotic little notion. Another Theo? Theo Benson wasn’t the sort of person to have an Other.

Many hopes coolly, briskly aborted conveyed her to Manfred Trust & Title. It spread its legs wide on the second floor of a two-story building downtown that was clean and new, if harshly and emphatically brick. There were many rooms, small and large, hallways she would never go down, offices somewhere behind walls occupied by men and women whose faces she would never encounter. Not knowingly. She pointed out, to the woman at the alongside desk, that for all she knew she might see them frequently about, in the exterior world. One of those people in Target, one of those wanderers in the aisles at Vons, someone she had nodded at, some recipient of a brief, pleasant, and perfectly relevant and justified observation—any one of them might be, secretly, a coworker. In any case she tried to be friendly with the unmet. One ought to be. She put forth the effort: now it was habit.

“People are strangers,” she reflected holding a pen, even as she was reading the words Manfred Trust & Title printed on it. “But what is a stranger? People are people. We’re all people. We all have needs, we all dream at night. We eat. We go to the bathroom. We make love.” And thereafter possess hope and bright wishes.

She found herself reflecting often. Work was a good place to do so. This work, Trust work, reading sheets of paper and marking them with her pen and making phone calls if others had marked them with their pens for some reason—these were interruptable labors. A few minutes of paper, a few moments of unauthorized thought... one stays human. “They don’t own me. They pay me for what I do for them.” They couldn’t expect her to operate without thinking.

It was better pay than she had ever gotten, though not as much as she’d expected upon graduation from college. The burdens of expectation: she knew now she had somewhat overestimated the demand for freelance illustration, perhaps even the demand for stories to illustrate; even, perhaps, the prevalence of raw literacy in this America of this immense new millennium. It struck her, frequently, that you could hear it in the way people spoke now, in the pressed truncated rhythms of voices in stores and on sidewalks, even here at work, in this very office. Even here, such a relaxed, friendly environment, even here.

 

2

 

There came to be, after a year and some months, The Man.

Surely a new hire, Rosalie thought. But wasn’t it the custom, in friendly offices, at jobs with some humanity, to have ceremonies of introduction? Not necessarily parties, of course; not balloons and streamers and abrupt eruptions of color. No, just a little walk around from desk to desk, nodding hello, saying one’s name and where one came from and what one did. A gesture—a series of gestures. “And even animals have their rituals,” she noted. “They welcome outsiders officially to the pack or tribe or herd, to prevent an uprising, to prevent their being attacked and ripped apart.” It was on TV. Outsiders had to be greeted, sniffed at, in a certain sense sanitized, cleansed of the odor of outsidedness. There ought always to be a pontifical pronouncement on the Rightness of this Outsider, a duty of management.

“Outsider,” she thought. “Outcision.” She spelled it out on a yellow sticky with the sacred pen. But did it have a spelling? Was it even a word?

Perhaps not, but it demanded existence, which she now had bestowed upon it. Outcision: the procedure whereby what is outside and strange is cut off, pushed away, until sniffed and introduced and compelled to disclosure and revelation, and made right. Thereby.

Of course The Man might have worked at Manfred Trust & Title from the start. Even as now, at that far desk in her big room, at the dim and small terminus of the column of muttering desks along the window wall. There were nineteen of those desks, all occupied. If one had been empty and blank, she would have noticed. A gap leaps out at the eye.

Had someone, one of her friends, been fired? Was The Man a replacement?

But they were always making changes to the topography of the office. Workmen were always roaming along the frontier. Now and then she’d pause between her calls at the cry, from a distance, of power tools. She had seen a wall excised; and really, these weren’t what one would call real walls, just pasteboard, counterfeit things. Perhaps, just, The Man and his desk and his entire operation had had a preexistence behind a wall that had been, over some night, removed. That, merely because there were now nineteen desks, there had always been nineteen desks might be a fallacious assumption, as might be the assumption that she had ever really counted them up. “And people are fallible,” she told her pen.

The Man could speak. He spoke. He spoke to Rosalie, in his own good time, when the signs were propitious. Nodding is a kind of speaking. Smiles are a kind of speaking. “Eyes!—eyes are a kind of speaking.” Rosalie said this to Janice.

Janice, her close and special friend at the next desk, with a sense of humor free of mockery, said unsurely that his name was Sanford. Rosalie asked her again. Even on repetition—still Sanford.

Soon she knew him as Sanford Kinz. Whatever might have been the case before, in his office preexistence, now he passed her desk, rear to front, front to rear. She could consider both sides of him, and those two were all the sides he had. He was rather older than she. The hair was graying—and going. It happens to young men, of course: he could easily be in his thirties.

Rosalie found she didn’t much care for Sanford Kinz.

He was too deflective.

He was cautious, studied, secretive. Closed to view. His words, his overt words, were all right. Ordinary office things, bits of chat. His eyes, however...

“Does he look at you that way?” she asked Janice in the hallway, leaving in service to the clock.

Janice turned frown, and Rosalie regreted any emphasis she had placed on the word you. “I never noticed anything.”

“Each time... I don’t know. He’s a little odd. Don’t you think?”

“I’ve barely talked to him.”

“No, he keeps to himself. No one talks to him. No one talks about him. But you know, he’s not some sort of sacred god, he’s just a human being like me and you, Janice.”

Janice smiled. “I don’t think he’s important.”

“I just don’t like the way he looks at me.”

After a quiet nod and a lookaway, Janice said: “If you really—I mean, they say right in the book—there’s a policy—”

Rosalie giggled, as if there were such a thing as an innocent, sunny giggle. “Oh, honey, it’s not a sex thing. I don’t plan to open wide and hungry for some closed-off office guy. Theo and I are perfectly happy.”

The expression that settled on Janice’s face was not the expression Rosalie had expected. It was not relief, not happiness at another’s good fortune; it was uninterpretable and thus an unnecessary trial at the end of the workday. Did Janice not comprehend that a marriage might still be healthy nine years on? And already some years in a house?  “Rose—no,” Janice said eventually, “I meant him, Sanford—”

“Uh huh.”

“That he’s coming on to you?”

“It’s not serious. You won’t spread it around?”

“Is he—?”

Rosalie shook her head in patient wonderment. “You mean Are we. No. Of course not. He just walks and looks. But honey, he does walk and look.”

“I never noticed. That little man? I never noticed.”

“Didn’t you?” But of course, it didn’t happen to you.

It went on. It progressed. It evolved.

 

3

 

After a few months, after mild introductions and minor revelations, all very safe, unsuspicious to others; after inadvertent snacktimes together, in plastic chairs, two plastic chairs, by the machines; after he had mentioned, or alluded to, the situation of being married—after some months of that, he began to plant things.

He left them on her desk. He was careful not to be seen, not to get caught at it. They were often there when she came in, which meant he had left them when he had come in early, or the previous night when he had lingered somewhere, perhaps in the mensroom in a stall, waiting.

First it was just a little scrap of paper. There was a mark on it, in ink, from a Manfred Trust & Title pen. It was a line with arrowheads at each end, one pointing to him, one pointing to her, pointing and linking two ends by a lifeline. There was a slight S-curve to it. She interpreted this curvature as a desire to move forward while remaining cautious, circumspect in the public eye.

As if she would be interested in being carried beyond friendship by that little man.

“I should tell him outright,” she said to Janice.

“Tell him—?”

“You know. That I’m married. About Theo. I could describe Theo. I could work it in.”

Janice was holding printed sheets of paper like a fan, like a woman in a mantilla coyly fluttering to be noticed. “I don’t think you’d need to describe him.”

“Don’t you remember seeing him? Theo?”

“When?”

“At the Christmas party. It was crowded, I know. But I know I brought him over to you. My big bear.”

“Well I, I guess I—”

Rosalie smiled in a tolerant way. “Honey, he’s not insubstantial.”

Janice nodded but covered her mouth with her fan of papers.

It appeared the tiny conversation between desks was now concluded, by fiat. She also withholds, Rosalie selfsaid.

Rosalie gave consideration to the piece of paper and its swerving message. But in a few days she tired of exegesis and yanked its tape and threw it away. She avoided Sanford and his glancing eyes and glancing words for a time. Then, to maintain harmony in the workforce family, she relented by degrees.

Other things followed—objects of meaning and veiled intent. Sometimes they were small things, officey things that bore with them the possibility of excuse and misdirection. Or outright denial. They often were pointed things, pointed remarks in material form. A letter opener, two pens (one unmarked), a business envelope lying flat with the vertex of its gummed flap clearly gesturing toward that desk at the far end of the room.

There was a six inch ruler. Six inches. She was offended. That same day, when she saw that he had left his desk, she strode over and placed it on his chair seat. Rosalie knew this would suggest that she was questioning his commitment to the male role.

Her retort seemed to deflate him, but only briefly. An hour or two.

From that point on, the routine metamorphosed into something more erratic, harder to read, perhaps more subtle, a little desperate and yearning. Things were placed—and removed. Sometimes an object of meaning, a communicae of the heart, was replaced unseen before she had taken it from sight. The love objects had only a wistful solidity: things changed. A candy kiss, left foiled where it had been planted at the corner of her desk, became in time a small eraser. A tiny block of wood, L O V E merrily lettered on the four sides, became a chewing gum wrapper, lying scrunched upon her return to her desk. Janice said nothing about these intruding objects. Rosalie appreciated this respect for her feelings as she confronted a delicate situation, an office obsession becoming frankly a case of stalking. Rosalie reminded herself: “This is not romance. This is an assertion of power by a little man.”

Rosalie said nothing about it. She made no complaint. She had read that complainers lost their jobs, even in a friendly office like that of Manfred Trust & Title.

She could not afford to lose her job. Theo reminded her of that fact, subtly but continuously. Endlessly, silently.

 

4

 

Came the crisis, a pivot.

Management in its small and local manifestation, Mr. Chandweill, had something to say to the office staff. The long room of the desks filled with people from other such long rooms, crowded together, half-smiling with anxiety. Importance brings forth anxiety. An important announcement, a dictum, a decree, a public execution threatened a disruption of routine. Busy hands and eyes would be discomfited. Whatever was to happen would surely happen poorly, thrust into the averted face of natural human inertia.

Rosalie waited. She suppressed an extra smile—“Not likely they want to have illustrations on their sheets of paper.” It would be a fine idea, though.

As Mr. Chandweill talked loudly, oblivious to the pool of human feeling surrounding him, Rosalie turned away on instinct, her eyes summoned back to her abandoned desk.

Something had been placed on the corner, in the special spot.

It was a figurine. Two thumbsized white lovers, embracing.

It was unignorable.

No one could even pretend to not notice that.

Her reputation—

She would be marked down, in pen, as a problem.

A problem in office harmony.

A mathematical problem, a deviant One among Many.

She might well start sobbing, any moment now, helplessly.

Sobbers get fired.

She carefully turned her face back front, lest others follow her eyes. She knew her face was red and simmering. But the crowd around her was eyeing Chandweill.

Chandweill was winding down. His froggy voice was enunciating more emphatically, hopping from word to word and pausing slightly on each one. But the precarious hops were coming more rapidly. He was reciting the final paragraph, the bit of staccato artistry he had crafted the night before. It was hardly inspiring. It had no earthly or human importance. It had to do with words that should not be said. Please be advised was now banned from Manfred Trust & Title. Letters were to have a friendlier voice. Warmth was to be spread. The valued clients were to be fertilized. Perhaps even some illustrations?... but no.

It was ending. The crowd would burst. They would dutifully gravitate back to their places in the Manfred Trust universe in an awed mutter. They would file past her desk.

Embracing lovers, Rosalie and Sanford Kinz, would present themselves minutely and whitely at the side of the muttering freeway, like advertising billboards. The mutterings would drop away. Nudges and shared looks would evolve like steam. And spread.

And so, as Mr. Chandweill wound down, Rosalie edged backwards with as much unhurry as she could draw from herself. Her red face—well, she was backing up. People would have to turn around to see. And these were not rude people. A person going toward the bathroom... no one would embarrass someone unexpectedly caught up in that dilemma.

Of course, someone else might be peeling away for that reason and mean it. And they would have to notice her. A fellow seeker of relief. A competitor for the ladies room.

Nearly all the employees were women.

Rosalie threaded her way back uneasily and prayerfully. She was not especially religious, but she was rapidly becoming moreso.

No toes were trod, but a few elbows were bumped. Mrs. Govaleen said a little something in a hushed splurt.

Back, back.

The periphery of the crowd was attained and passed. Now she could turn and walk briskly, with efficiency, to pass the desk, to scoop up this aggressive insertion into her office life, to hide it in—in somewhere. Perhaps to lower it, gently, into her trash can, to nestle there without a rustle, to sink out of sight amid other strange white things.

When she reached her desk, he had replaced the lovers with two tiny bottles of whiteout, pressed close.

 

5

 

Rosalie said nothing about this crisis at home. Her allusions to Sanford Kinz evaporated in the speaking.

“At the office,” she began, “something kind of odd...”

You’re lucky to have a job, Ro.

“These times.”

Hard.

“One of the others, this man—”

The boss?

“No.”

Ignore him, then. Bosses count, coworkers don’t. They hate you.

She considered this. “They hate me?”

They hate one. They hate each other. They hate work. It’s work, Ro. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t hate it.

“Money’s important, I guess.”

No, it’s the most unimportant thing in the world. But having it, that’s important.

“I know,” she said. He resumed the thinking that he always was doing. “But you know,” she ventured, “this man I was telling you about, Theo...”

When?

“Hmm?”

When were you telling me about a man?

“The coworker. He’s odd. I try to be friendly—”

Don’t, Ro.

“I wasn’t provocative, Theo, just engaging in minor converation. I wasn’t encouraging.”

You’re not shy, he stated. You’ve never been. You’re outspoken. You say what’s on your mind.

“What else could one say?” But this last was neutered unuttered.

 

6

 

Since the crisis of the figurine, she had taken her breaks at odd times, even at her desk, with her pen. The Manfred Trust & Title sheets of paper were convenient spatulas for crumbs.

She thought of Sanford Kinz as a minute crumb that clung to her skirt, shadowed in a fold, a little compressed, awaiting revelation.

She wondered what to do, and kept wondering. It was making her smile less. Rosalie felt the edifice of her friendliness decaying. She was en route to becoming—what? The office spinster. The office old maid. She had seen it before. Dried and enveloped in gentle pity, half-amused understandings; and she was not yet thirty years of age, and she was attractive. Her long hair shone in the window light like something rubbed and buffed by hand. She knew she was attractive. Even more, a bit. It seemed to her she possessed a careless, unforced sort of basic beauty, something that spoke of comfort, nothing of animality or challenge. A default beauty. Any woman could have that, at least, at least that. She understood the male rather well, his endless struggle not to be dominated, not to be engulfed, overwhelmed: to shout his manhood, to dance on the bleeding grave of his enemy. A woman, wise, ought not be aggressively pretty. Even if it raised one’s market value, it evoked in men conflicted feelings and subtle resentments. Did they ever realize that? That they too, men, might envy a woman’s beauty? That they too might like to be pretty?

Sanford Kinz was not a normal man.

Why would he have risked exposing the object of his daily devotions to embarrassment, tears, expulsion? Yes—outcision. Not normal.

Not normal—but was it clever?

Rosalie had not expected that someone yearning for her attentions might be so strategic.

She decided to take this unexpectedness and welcome it in,  make it a stimulation, something to give point to the day-and-day-and-day at Manfred Trust. To understand, to somehow grasp this odd man, needn’t be a dreadful intimacy; it could be a tool to develop insight into those who passed by, in bits, impressionistic portraits where Socialist Realism, a remembered term, was needed. She could come to understand him, discreetly, from a safe distance, the distance between two plastic chairs; and in keeping herself protected, she would have a victory on her own terms. Victory, as men are allowed to have, and unthinkingly require of themselves to have—a triumph. Of course the end wouldn’t be a dance on his grave. Not that. Sanford Kinz wanted to be grasped. That he wanted it perhaps too desperately was just a detail, a dot. Dot com.

She resumed talking to him and observed the wound disappearing from his blue eyes. Neither of them mentioned the crisis of the lovers. She made one allusion. “Do you like antiques?”

Such as figurines.

“No, not especially. No, not really.”

But surely her message had been received, the message that she knew, that she had seen and understood, that her lack of response was her response. No, not really—that word, really, functioned as a modifier, a reducer of the No. A lessener, a lightener, a leavener. It leavened No all the way to Yes. He liked antiques enough, enough to seek and find tiny white lovers embracing, just long enough for Rosalie to see.

Conversation by conversation—conversations of small words and spare sentences—her eyes were falling into his. Yet Rosalie was in control of it, muscularly so, confident and pleased and pressing forward patiently but ruthlessly. She didn’t care for this little man, this withholder. But it was invigorating to do something with him, to make of him something, just for her.

 

7

 

“What do you do on your day off?” she asked and munched—an energy bar.

He half-smiled his odd half smile, inevitably half only. “Oh, well, not much. There are always things.”

“Mm-hmm. Around the house.”

“Oh yeah.”

He did not mention his wife.

“Suburban living,” she nodded. “There’s always grass and windows, carpet...”

“I have an older house.” He still was not mentioning his wife. “The walls—man, the weather does a number...”

“But—for fun. There’s never enough time for physical intimacy. Right?”

“Mm. A lot of TV. Sports stuff. There’s a group I go to...”

He was not mentioning his wife.

He finished, “Just a small group.”

“Oh,” she said mildly. “One of those groups.”

And his half-smile twitched on the cliff’s edge of expansion. “No, it’s not AA. Not one like that. It’s, we call it, the creation group.”

“A religious—”

“It’s irreligious,” he said in haste. “It’s for creative people who, who write. The would-be kind of writing. Authors of stories, poems, articles—like you’d see in the Op-Ed columns.”

“Amateur—mm, creators.”

“Well, we, we never say amateur. There’s a dignity thing, and also a motivation thing.” He nodded at himself. “See, you’re not even an author if you classify yourself as an amateur. You’re not anything, just something. See? We’re professionals...”

Rosalie put forth a charming small laugh. “In your own minds.” A poke at the concealing shell.

Sanford seemed to be taking her observations awfully seriously. “It’s more the world’s mind. We’re talented and professional creators that this world doesn’t happen to care about at the present time. We say that.”

“It’s the world, yep. What kind of creating do you do?”

“Fictitious. Stories, a few, really just one, and poems. I write little poems frequently.”

“At your desk? Observing us here. Office life.”

He looked at her quietly.

“A person has to do something,” she continued. “I do. The desk drives you crazy. It burns you up. Self-immolation. The routine. You know, on the phone, those people... I’m not sure people know anymore how to be polite or friendly. Everyone is so distrustful. Everyone is distrusted. That’s my observation. If you wrote a poem about that, well, I would say good for you and your accuracy. Incise away! It’s the way things and people are these days.”

“Yes. More and more.”

“And continuously.”

“I don’t always favor—the telephone.”

A cautious disclosure. She caught it instantly. Sanford Kinz was not the speaking sort of man. His language, his passion, was symbolic in form. Words as dark things on a sheet of pure white. Symbols—he was owning, with just the slightest touch of a verbal finger, his communications with her over these weeks, these months. He had risked exposing the tip.

“I am...myself...the tip—mm—a creative person. In visible things. I mean, I draw,” she said.

“Oh...”

“I was in college as an illustrator.”

“So, for magazines?”

“Books and magazines.”

“My story could be illustrated,” he said, “but you can’t illustrate a poem. It’s too definite. It’s a clashing medium.”

“Poetry is?”

“I mean you can’t add art to it, because... it already says everything it wants to say. On its own.”

“But it could. It can. Illustration can, I mean. Art can say things also on its own.”

“Well, I know. That’s really true. I envy someone who can draw.”

“I certainly can,” she said.

 

8

 

She told Theo, with hesitation and forethought, that she would be joining a group of creative people, a sharing group.

Sharing?

“They share their work.”

Writing?

“I’m bringing in art.”

They’ll tear you apart, Ro, he said.

“Now...no...I don’t think so. I don’t expect anything like that.”

People don’t. They just join some group and throw up their stuff to strangers and—I’ve seen grown men cry. What exactly do you have, Ro? What are you taking so seriously?

“You know I’m an illustrator.”

I do not know you’re an illustrator. You went to college and got some sort of degree in a subject that’s never done you or me one bit of good. I don’t see you out here at night illustrating, sitting at this table with a pencil in your hand. I don’t see you doing it for love. Not for profit. Not for survival. I don’t see you doing it at all. If you never do it—what are you? What are you exactly?

She didn’t back away or back down, but she looked down. “Theo. I don’t call that supportive.”

I’m not trying to be supportive. I’m trying to be protective. Do you have some need to get yourself hurt? Right now?

“It’s every other week, Thursday nights,” she said. “I’ll be going tomorrow. I’ve been invited.” She started to leave the room. “That’s it, Theo.” She finished leaving the room.


 

CREATION

 

1

 

The house of the creators was north, in a different suburb; if suburbs actually have identities and aren’t swooping ringlets of green and brown massively constituting a common boundless Suburbia.

It took twenty-five minutes to drive. Even, thought Rosalie, in a late-model car.

Parking provided the challenge of the hunt.

As she approached on the sidewalk that twilight rendered in drab yellow, she saw the backside of a woman on the front steps, holding open the security screen door. The woman’s outfit was reassuring. The woman entered. The security screen door clacked shut.

Her portfolio, of sorts, under her arm, she mounted the steps. She noted the house, a large old one with appended newer walls spilling out over the lawn. What will be left for the children to play in? she wondered. People age and die and children, not the meek, inherit the earth, always.

She entered and stood before the questioning eyes. Rosalie could not smile, as she was already smiling, but she could nod modestly, and did. “Hel-lo,” she said.

The circle of creators had already possessed, when she had come in, a flickering hum with its little pointed peaks of enthusiasm and friendliness. Now it became a hum of silence. Just for an instant. Then a woman said, “Ah ha.” New blood.

Another woman, hard looking, entered from behind and swiveled and offered her hand. “Rosalie? So nice. I know, the parking. But a lot of it’s ours. Thursday night. Everyone, this is Rosalie.”

“Rosalie Benson,” tailgated Rosalie Benson demurely. “That’s my name.” She took a chair, an odd chair, evidently collapsible in some way but with a cushioned back. It seemed creation would be hard on one’s back.

The hard-looking woman sat. “Well, Rosalie, I’m the Nioma you spoke to.” Were there many Niomas in the world?

Nioma gestured around rather sharply. “I didn’t start the group—Shiela died last year—”

“Breast cancer,” murmured itself somewhere. “Now I always give.”

“But I do have this nice big room,” said Nioma.

There were, Rosalie counted very surreptitiously, seventeen women, seventeen even. Most were older and a little matronly, if disguised, and a little sprawling in manner and look. But two seemed very young, and two were of normal age, Rosalie’s age. As Nioma rambled on of irrelevancies, Rosalie regarded the group and made her estimate of how many were lesbians. She decided on four, one more undecided.

Among the nonlesbians in the room were two men. One was young and scrawny, dressed in mannered rebellion, into which he had changed in haste after taking off his fastfood costume.

The other was Sanford Kinz, whose half-smile, the nuances of which Rosalie was quickly mastering, welcomed her with its  anxiety limned in overenthusiam.

They all held paper—notebooks, loose sheets, something flopping around that looked like butcher paper, its scrawl visible. But I’m all right, Rosalie thought; I have my own paper.

They took minutes to talk about themselves for the benefit of the newcomer, unilluminating, but in a few cases much more illuminating than a newcomer might want. These women have no lives but this, she thought.

The Creation Group commenced its ritual. From paper they read aloud, into air. It was impossible not to be interested, or to be interested. It was impossible to take any attitude at all. One turned inward. There was nothing to think, about what was going on. It was not a matter for thinking; it was not an occasion for thinking. Most of what was uttered into air raised no thought at all. This, she thought, is what people say when saying is expected but nothing is there to be said. It was a frame of words carefully contrived around a portrait that was absent.

Absence was gestured forward elaborately. There was no shame hinted; and yet she supposed there must be shame. These were human beings, these Creators, and they knew somewhere beneath that they swam about in emptiness. Their insights, their lives, had no substance. No tragedy, only occasional knots in a dumb string of days. And, particularly and all too tiresomely, nights.

Rosalie struggled to keep her eyes friendly, and open.

Nervousness helped her. She would be last, and what she would present would be different. The novelty might well prove invigorating. These people might come to life for the moment and like it and like her. But she remembered what Theo had said. Perhaps in the car, later, she would be in tears for twenty-five minutes.

There was also anticipation. Sanford. Rosalie intended to see what he intended to be seen by her alone.

What was there, in that room? Things that fluttered, things that uncoiled themselves endlessly like toothpaste and hung down to the carpet and heaped up beneath the earnest squeezer. Sometimes, big soft lumps that thumped down vulgarly. Every now and then flecks of light suddenly exhausted, zephyrs of cool rescue that passed soothingly without repetition. There were dragons and unicorns, brave boy-warriors named Kith and Gollyum and Evro. There were old women dying in lonely apartments, sunlight on flowers, rain on flowers, urine on flowers, dead flowers, scraps of ground that yearned for flowers. There were deflowerings. There was a man trying to convince a doctor that the thick marking pen in the further unreachable reaches of his rectum had gotten there by sheer accident. (It was the middle of a one-act play.) There were friends lost and friends forgotten and lovers who never got off the ground. Eros and despair were equally reduced to uncertain rhyme and metaphor. (The choice to resort to rhyme was criticized, criticism acknowledged, received with freighted brow.) A long-abandoned swingset collapsed from rust at the most alarming and inconvenient and suspiciously significant moment possible.

The scrawny boy had written, if not a song, something to be sung. He sung it, winsomely, with tears in his eyes. And he couldn’t sing.

Nioma presented a sort of Op-Ed piece that was, in truth, more of a Letter to the Editor, and even more an entry in a blog. Rosalie agreed with her that the internet had killed something, but precisely what had been killed was never entirely clear in Nioma’s very definite peroration. Perforation!

Nothing was clear anywhere in that guarded, yet internally careless and blurtive, circle of chairs. Rosalie searched in her mind for something she had read about the fog of war; this battlefield was sad and desperate and halting, though not halting enough. It was hard to retain her friendliness, an accepting attitude, something hopeful.

Rosalie didn’t care greatly for the voices of women, and these women had the voices of women, as did the scrawny boy.

Maybe  I have too much opinion, she thought. But she wanted reality, and this was not reality. This was remains. This was luggage left behind by reality in sudden evacuation to a safer place.

There were too many aimless metaphors.

There were choppy exclamations and run on sentences and sentences that ran on and on heedless of danger or anything else.

There was vulgarity and profanity and obscenity, the vulgarity from the women, the profanity and obscenity from the scrawny boy and Nioma.

All that, and yet she managed to smile and smile and look and, sometimes and with considerable effort, look interested. Hearing what comments and criticisms were like in the Creation Group, irrelevantly encouraging or covertly sadistic, Rosalie opted for a modest and tentative irrelevance. She was tempted near sadism only once, when little Caryl—who had primly provided the spelling of her name—came to the terminus of the adventures of a worm in an apple; worse, it was a story; even worse, it was a story set in rhyme. It was told from the point of view of the apple.

“I don’t know,” Rosalie said. “Isn’t it—it’s so intimate. All that going on in the insides...”

“It’s a metaphor for the physical act of love.”

“I’m just not so sure—”

“I hope people will feel the metaphor.”

“I liked it,” announced Nioma.

“I thought it was imaginative and really punched,” said the scrawny boy, Kelvin. “I felt it. It meant something to me.” And he explained at length what it meant to him.

“I didn’t get that...” said a quiet voice from somewhere.

“If it meant that to me,” said Kelvin, “then it’s there. It’s in there. If anyone gets anything, it’s there. You can’t get it if it isn’t there.”

Rosalie decided not to inject anything further, as did most of the others, and the controversy about nothing became nothing itself. And so the next voice was heard and heard, and heard.

 

2

 

The wave of depositions came to Sanford Kinz.

He had awaited with ankles crossed, lamplight diffused about his scalp amid hazy shadows of the brave last forays of hair that were smudged in ordered rows across his head.

He had changed after work. Rosalie had never seen him in a tee before. Nor had she imagined it.

His legs, in jeans from an earlier era of self, bulged out a bit where they folded across the edge of the chair. Still a little man, but here a little older, a little pudgy, a person who would be impatient with a lawn.

Sanford seemed a comfortable fit among the Creators. There was no quiver in his voice, which was richer and more projective than she had anticipated. He was something of a different person here. His perpetual sentry had withdrawn for the moment.

He read from a blank book no longer blank, spread, spread wide in his thickish hands. He squinted and moved it closer, glancing reprovingly at the lamp, but the book didn’t obscure his face or blur his voice.

It was a story, almost complete, a vignette. Everyone had heard it already, in several shades, ever turning back on itself and recalculating. A young black man arriving from Africa in the South of the Good Old Boy Days, to mix with the slack and weary descendants of slaves in shacks and squalor, to get into fights and victimizations, to seek love and fail to find it, to make observations and, with a certain nobility of freeborn character, draw contrasts. His Ugandan ways were ridiculed, he was resented by corrupt masters of opinion, but he protected the gentle egg of his African dignity and, post-mortem, forced spare words of admiration from the attending men in sheets.

All that in only a few turns of page. It was the best in the room. Surely they could see it. No, surely they could not.

He settled back, his expression polite and open but resigned, and his story was uncreated by those many who could not be bothered to listen and understand. Uncreated clumsily, without hostility, with prefatory praise and apology. But uncreated.

The wave shuddered forward, to the next chair in the ring.

 

3

 

When attention fell to Rosalie it was welcoming and patient, not surgical. She leaned forward into it and didn’t care if her nervousness showed. Some timidity, here as a newcomer to the pack, surely was warranted.

“What I do, I’m sure Nioma and Sanford warned you, is different from what you do. It’s a different creation. I don’t use words, but visible art. Art—sketches. To be looked at.”

“She illustrates,” said Sanford.

“Yes, that’s different,” said Nioma. “It’s okay. It’s nice.”

“We haven’t seen them yet,” someone muttered covertly, and there was a shimmer of laughter.

“They’re not dirty,” Rosalie said. “I don’t deal in human filth.”

“Oh no, no, of course not,” burbled Caryl.

“Sex isn’t dirty,” pronounced Nioma. “And we can and do talk about it here, and now we can look at it. Go on, Rosalie.”

“These have nothing to do with sex,” Rosalie said back, with tightening smile.

“Let’s see them,” ordered The Scrawny. “We’ll decide what they have to do with.”

She began to display the illustrations, most from years ago, even college, holding them high and rotating them like lighthouse beams. They were in pencil, charcoal, colored pencil, ink, acrylic, watercolor. One phase involved photos she had snapped, sliced jigsaw fashion and reassembled into an assertion. Some declaimed printed lettering—ads. In another one had what might have been printed lettering, from a distance, but was on approach sharp black angled shapes that only mocked letters and words. Rosalie was proud of that one. The mind was induced to believe and draw close, then to cope with frustration. Art could address frustration, she insisted.

The last one. “It’s you, this group. I illustrated you, all of you together, in anticipation.” She turned the big sheet around to face them. They studied it, intently for the first time, in expanding silence.

“Mm,” said one of the four, perhaps five, estimated lesbians.

“Well... I...” opined another.

Rosalie told them to say what they liked, to declare their reactions. “I’m new. I need to get to know you.”

“Now then,” stated The Scrawny.

“There’s feeling in this room,” smiled Nioma. “And that’s just what it’s all about. You feel your way to creation.”

“And forethought,” reproved a woman named Annis. “You always gotta plan. We talked that to death. It’s structure.”

“It’s all together.”

“Do we, do we look like that to you... Rosalie?” ventured one of the very young women, metallic streaks in her hair.

Sanford reminded them that the sketch, the illustration, had been priorly done.

“Last night and this morning,” said Rosalie. “It’s conceptual. It’s my anticipation of what it would feel like to enter you.”

“But what do we think?” demanded The Scrawny.

“I’m afraid I don’t get it,” a grandmotherly woman put in. “I’m sorry, dear. I don’t get it.”

“Not getting it is fine,” said Nioma. The Scrawny agreed heartily.

“That there in the middle,” pointed Caryl unsteadily, vaguely. “Um. That part, those... represent the concept of us, each, as individuals. Don’t they? I see them as having arms and heads.”

“And eyes,” said a voice.

“No ears,” said another.

“But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening,” smiled Rosalie. “Really, I listened carefully to all of you. This was wonderful! You’re all brave.”

“Well yes.” “In a sense.” “We are! I agree.” “I think you have to be, to put it out there.” “Creativity...” “Look, we know you were listening. I was just—” “If you don’t put it out there, how can you really say This is Mine?”

Then it dribbled off and they were left looking.

“But you haven’t said how you feel,” Rosalie smiled.

They looked.

 

4

 

The Creation Group became a part of her life. It couldn’t help it.

Rosalie found herself compressing her exploratory surgery of Sanford Kinz into Manfred Trust & Title entirely, daylight hours, plastic chairs by the snack machines. Her fascination with the notion of understanding him, her sparely admitted attraction to mastering him and his little balding world, no longer moved forwards but sideways along the edge of the plateau. The connection forged had clearly drawn off whatever electricity had led to his shy symbolisms, his conversation by placed objects. Things, morphable and assertive things, no longer appeared on her desk. Yet his glances were no less intent. Their small conversations, office chats insofar as the office noticed them, grew more shaded. The challenge sharpened itself. His unfolding, his careful disprotecting, was handled with scalpel movements that came insistently to Rosalie by instinct. She felt herself delicately, fruitfully peeling Sanford Kinz, day by day.

The man of Manfred Trust was not wholly the man of the Creators. He was fainter at Manfred Trust. His flashlight of emotion, batting forth his fascinations and particularities from the interior shadow, was diminished in those plastic chairs. Outside the group he said nothing about his story or his poems, barely mention the group at all; and when Rosalie did, his mouth became taut. At Manfred Trust he was not a Creator, only a gelded pursuer. He spoke of things that were slight and soft, the drying laundry of passing life. He spoke of his schooling, and of his inconsequential friends and interruptive relations. There was mention of a teenage son, not enthused upon and not sequeled.

His wife was named Connie. But the words Connie and Theo were rarely heard, and then by accident, ill-considered sentences rashly begun that rumbled to completion diminuendo.

“Yet he knows and I know,” she thought: thought to herself, for who listens to thought? There was no dishonesty. The permission given was permission to disclose, to open. Only that. Not—

Sanford Kinz was her interest, now a secondary interest, a hobby. No doubt a phase of her life that would be squeezed dry some near day and drop from her hand. In no way was it unkind. Surely he was benefiting. He was learning, even as she, confronting the truth, what it was like to acquire what one sought in a human being, what it was like to discover how little of a human being could be acquired. But insistently she had Theo and Theo had her and they had a suburban house and all was well, if for the moment an incomplete sentence.

It was as a Creator, on those nights, in a circle, that he disclosed his inner skin. The initiative was his.

 

5

 

Those nights were now exercising a gravitational tug that reached across the intervening days, the too-numerous intervening days. They were becoming large in her mind.

The Creators were, quickly, her friends. She thought of them often. She knew their names and their quirks. She began to feel the shapes of their vulnerabilities. Her criticisms became more precise, less scattershot, and as she spoke their faces glinted with appreciations that could not decently be uttered.

They paid her their attentions, such as they had to give. They looked at her, intently, soberly; and at her illustrations. She made a point of calling them that. Not sketches, drawings, paintings. Not portraits. Not “art.” They were illustrations. The story was her story, told without text but with profuse illustration, and that was text enough, even better than words, words which were too often like little locked jewel-boxes that betrayed nothing. One accumulated, gradually, in bits, what the written part might have contained had it ever made paper. Something emerged from the illustrations; the thing illustrated, her life, her human feeling, was to be gathered, never asserted. She disclosed herself by agglomeration, and the Creators, and Sanford Kinz, entered willingly if unconsciously into her methods. She was engaged in subversion, in cracking defenses, her own defenses, breaching security to advance the party of Closeness.

Annoyances and little failures were expected, of course. In his way Theo had inoculated her. She accepted genially the moments of vapidity. She struggled not to be saddened by the futility of these enterprises, the self-delusions of this community of women with two men. She knew, and tried not to show that she knew, how decisively their words could not change the world, could not change even their own worlds. Just below the flickerings of chat, the incessant percolations, lay something vast and heedless, something too pedestrian to be tragic but nonetheless a foundation of pain upon which edifices were erected, temporarily thrust upward with forced confidence to then totter to oblivion. Nothing here would last, Rosalie knew. Not even Sanford’s reachings. Not even her own. Imperceptibly the earth would give way beneath them, give too far and collapse. They would not be known beyond the security screen door.

She reflected upon these serious matters while maintaining an encouraging smile, while listening just enough to snag something upon which to hang a comment. One must comment. Comments were streamers of glue. The Group transcended its sacrificial human lambs, its superficialities. The Group was something larger, that breathed.

 

6

 

I don’t agree with your going, said Theo.

“But I’m going,” said Rosalie.

 

7

 

Some, many, of the Creators had lives that were imperfect, and resumed discussing that fact when their new member had been sufficiently sniffed.

One spoke of a man she called Dickhead. Often, eventually all but continuously. He had screwed and divorced and rescrewed and now there were children who were sullen and in therapy and the younger daughter stole things and ate unwisely and voluminously and now expandingly. There were battles with Dickhead, not so much loud as tedious and corrosive, small things, sad things, things without end. “They’re like splinters stuck into each day,” she said and it was the most interesting thing she ever said.

A nod wavered around the circle.

“I wish I had your problems right now,” said the old woman.

“I find that patronizing and dismissive,” said a young woman back at her, and added in early defense, “I said I.”

“Please have some sympathy for what death does to a person, dear,” said the old woman.

“Death,” said Nioma, “now death—”

“Talked to death,” pronounced one of the metal-haired.

The Scrawny leaned forward. “I’m going to say this. Death is a tearing away and not a chopping. Not clean. You heard the song, well it was part of a song I guess, where I use terms about how things pull apart   ”

“You mean,” said one, “about the Indian blanket, that one?”

“No, that was mine,” said Caryl.

“It was the tapestry of life’s weaving. Death is like, like when you have a hunting hound   ”

“In the tapestry?”

“Part of the whole picture. Hunters on horses, bugle, trees, hounds but then one of the hounds is torn free and the thread...yarn...”

“Warp and wolf.”

“It’s just hanging out like fingers,” declared The Scrawny and then he awaited that which did not arrive.

“You know, I was talking about Dickhead,” said the woman who had the problematic life of the moment, if not the century. “Let’s get back to Dickhead.”

“Please,” said Nioma.

 

8

 

And sometimes the imperfection was happiness.

 

 

Some distance in, some time along, she pressed her lips tight, and yet spoke. “Something I wanted to announce.”

“Is it—?” Caryl gasped.

“She’ll tell us,” said The Scrawny.

Rosalie widened her lips. “It is.”

“Omigod!” and more.

“I found out just the other day. I almost called you, Nioma.”

“That would have been nice,” said Nioma. Rosalie noted a look of reproach. Perhaps. At least a question.

The grandmother asked if Rosalie knew the sex; not gender, sex. Rosalie thought but did not say, You have to know the sec before there is anything to know the gender of.

One of the four, possibly five, lesbians noted quickly that such matters were not generally determinable so early along, when pregnancy is first confirmed.

“I feel that it’s a girl,” said Rosalie. “It’s just a feeling. I don’t know how to explain it. I can feel her whole life from beginning to end. It has shape and texture.”

“I know what you mean exactly,” said The Scrawny.

“I do too,” said one young girl, Marinda.

More resonation—resonativity—from all directions. Then it began to damp down.

Silence was approaching, and Nioma said with gentle interest, “Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

Rosalie looked with silence at this peculiar blindness.

“It’s all right,” said one of the lesser persons, whose name was Rachel. “We have to be free to talk, don’t we? To write and create honestly? It’s all right, Rosalie. However they try, abortion is not a dirty word. You have the right.” Definitely five.

Rosalie tried very hard to keep her tone pleasant, encouraging, even appreciative, certainly oblivious. “I intend to give birth to my daughter.”

“It’s wonderful!” breathed Caryl. “For all the suffering, it’s still wonderful!” Caryl was reproved, laughingly. “But it is wonderful!”

“The suffering,” stated The Scrawny, “is real and a part of life and shouldn’t be underrated or pushed away or ignored. So what if it’s the dirty part? We take it as clay.”

“What?”

“And mold it.”

“Does your husband know?” asked Nioma. “Well, of course he does. I don’t know why I... sorry.”

“Even if he didn’t, didn’t know,” said Number Five, “even if you found an alternative father, an elective—so why shouldn’t she? This is her thing, her growth, personal growth.”

“My husband is utterly happy,” said Rosalie with a dip of chin. “It’s a completion to our life.”

“Life is complete without any other than you,” declared one of the talentless. “Oneself is it. My poem said that.”

“Thank you,” said Rosalie.

 

8

 

“I was surprised,” said the Office Sanford Kinz from his white plastic chair, next day. They seemed never to speak to one another privately, personally, after the group, during the scattered walk from security screen door to car door.

 He wonders what it means, telling the others, not telling him. “I thought it was a nice way,” she replied.

He withheld and said only: “Guess it’s not something for the office.”

“No. These are not my intimate friends. I don’t overreach.”

“Does Janice know?”

“No.”

“Well, anyway,” he said, “when you go on maternity leave...”

“I’m not sure when that will be. I think the doctor decides. I’ll wait as long as I can.” Those who don’t wait as long as they can get fired. “I think, you know, that to go on maternity leave you have to prove that you’re maternal. Pregnant. That it’s true. I don’t intend to permit Chandweill to do a gynecological examination. That’s too much.”

He somewhat chuckled, and then said, “It has to mean a lot to you, Roz.”

“Yes. If I didn’t love Theo,” she smiled, “if I didn’t have the house with him, now a little girl to share—well you know, in a funny way the husband becomes superfluous after you have your birth. That occurred to me.”

“In a funny way.”

“Still, this is completion.”

She wondered what he would then disclose. Silence was what.

 

9

 

“You still don’t Show.” It was said frequently. To the Creators, her friends, her intimacies, it appeared that Showing was more important than Being.

“Oh I do,” said Rosalie. “To myself. I don’t plan to come in naked.”

“But a person could be free to do that,” said The Scrawny. “I could do that, couldn’t I, if it brought up insight. Body is the human drama.”

Nioma said mildly, “Not here, Kelvin.”

“I wear looser clothes,” continued Rosalie.

“When I was pregnant...” loomed from Caryl.

“It’s in my family,” still continued Rosalie. “My Mom, all the women—don’t Show. Never. In fact it’s a double dose—it’s the same in Theo’s family. Not Showing. So—from both sides.”

“I don’t see how—” Kelvin began earnestly.

“Because of genetics,” she said

“But how—”

“Doesn’t the baby have something to do with Showing? It’s not just the mother. The baby has inherited from both sides. The baby might not be inclined to Show. They say taste is formed in the womb.”

“Let’s start,” said Nioma, and it was her house.

 

10

 

And it seemed more and more, meeting by meeting, that Showing was, in fact, more important than Being.

“I’m just amazed,” said Five, “how little you Show, Rosalie.”

“Isn’t it getting close?” asked Nioma, though it didn’t quite have the heft of a question.

Rosalie smiled. She held up her drawing pad. “See? I’m Showing.” She was illustrating her pregnancy.

One of the inconsequentials leaned forward. “My poem today touches on this.”

“It doesn’t touch on anything until we hear it,” The Scrawny said. “I’m not being sarcastic.”

“It sounded a little sharp.”

“Let’s begin,” said Nioma.

“We just don’t Show in my family,” said Rosalie.

 

10

 

She had a meeting at Manfred Trust, in a small office far from view. Then another. Then she wasn’t there, though her desk, her personal effects, remained in place, neatly arranged, awaiting. Janice knew, now. Maternity leave; she would propagate the facts to Rosalie’s unintimate friends at Trust, the desk people. Rosalie knew Sanford Kinz would keep to himself. In this part of world and time, he kept to himself.

 

11

 

She was absent from the Creators.

She imagined them saying, She waited so long, just to be here with us; and, She really didn’t Show, as if it were some sort of heroic or freakish attainment. She called Nioma. “You’ll be in our thoughts,” Nioma said.

“I’ll feel like I’m still there,” Rosalie said.

“But it won’t be long.”

“She may be premature. They seem to think that. But I’ll bring her around one night.”

“Oh?”

“I’ll see that she’s well-behaved,” said Rosalie. “I believe in being well-behaved and content. There won’t be fussing or crying. Just one night; she’ll be food for thought.”

“I hope it’ll be easy for you...”

“How was your first?”

“Fine,” Nioma replied. Rosalie doubted it had been fine, but really, it didn’t matter.

 

12

 

She called Sanford Kinz. He answered. “Where’s your wife?” she asked.

“Mowing the lawn.”

“You have her trained.”

“She likes to do it. So you’re gone for a while?”

“What did Janice say?”

“It’s gotten around.”

“Is the office in an uproar?”

“The office can’t afford to be in an uproar.”

“What about the Creators?”

“Nioma said she talked to you.”

“I plan to bring my daughter to the group some night, since everyone seems to want something to be Shown.”

“Well... have her first, then bring her.”

“It’ll be soon.”

That was their last conversation prior to the event.

The event. The eventuation.

 

13

 

The Creators were talking. Their talking was blanketed and woolen. Rosalie entered quietly with her pad held protectively like a shield, seeking to meet their eyes, but there were no eyes to be met. It’s hard for them, she thought.

She took the seat that seemed to have become her seat.

Bella was next to her, and her fat made her even closer. “I’m so sorry,” she said very quietly.

“I’m glad you know. I’m glad all of you know.”

Nioma rose and approached and bent near. “I read them your letter. We’re all Here For You.”

“Thank you.”

The Scrawny, near, leaned out and angled toward Rosalie. “It was the consensus of the Group. Nice. Not real significant right now. Look for poetry and a story. Nice.”

She nodded. She felt captured and contained, but it was a warm containment, an embracing.

Number Five spoke out and looked as if she were about to stand up and proclaim some major policy statement. “You know, I think we ought to share in this, openly. No talking in hushed voices. It’s not an assassination, it’s the loss of a child—”

“My daughter,” corrected Rosalie.

“And you need support. Don’t you? Your body betrayed you—”

“Oh for Gawd sake,” said the grandmother, another one of the definitely five.

“But it’s true,” pronounced The Scrawny. “The body—”

“I wasn’t betrayed,” said Rosalie. “I was disappointed. They warned about a miscarriage.”

“Devastating,” began Caryl.

“Yes,” Rosalie said.

Sanford Kinz was looking at her.

Nioma said, Let’s begin.

 

14

 

She returned to the office. There were murmurs and sympathetic looks, and she assumed she was something of a subject of conversation, tragedy making celebrity. But only Janice gave feeling. Sanford Kinz took his break early and was back at his desk before Rosalie could join him.

Four days later Mrs. Govaleen approached her and bent down and said something barely audible.

 

15

 

Rosalie went back, back, beyond counterfeit walls to the largest office of all. But it’s shabby, she thought. Chandweill had another man, a young man, standing next to his desk.

Chandweill nodded her down into a chair.

 

16

 

When she returned to her desk, she sat unmoving.

“Janice...” she said at last. “Honey, I’m leaving.”

“Not feeling so good?”

“I can’t work here,” said Rosalie. “I’ve given notice. I’m getting my things together and leaving, right now. I won’t be back. I’ve given enough. These last few weeks have been nothing but giving and giving up.”

“Rosalie, it’s probably better to get rest. Pregnancy, losing the baby... You could probably go on hiatus, something like hiatus—”

“No,” she said. “Not here.”

When Sanford Kinz stalked by her desk, she didn’t look up.

 

17

 

She didn’t attend the next meeting of the Creators. She knew Sanford Kinz would be there.

 

18

 

She unplugged the phone.

 

19

 

After two absences, she undertook the drive, smiling, her pad next to her, sliding off the seat into the well whenever she stopped.

There were abundant parking spaces on Nioma’s street. The security screen door was locked.

 

20

 

On a Saturday afternoon, Rosalie appeared at Nioma’s door.

“It would be better to call,” said Nioma politely however hard her face. “I’m usually out Saturday afternoon. It’s kind of a long drive for you.”

“I’m interrupting. But I had to.”

“Come on in.”

“I’d rather not,” said Rosalie. “No. I’m on my way... would you come out? Walk with me to my car.”

“All right.”

The security screen door slammed shut behind Nioma. Along the way it rattled a little; over the months it had learned to rattle.

They were at the car. Rosalie was pressed back against the side window. Nioma remained on the sidewalk looking, as always, very immovable. “What happened to the group?” said Rosalie quietly.

Of course there was an official story, the party line as unreeled by Nioma, Creator. It was obviously constructed with some care, forethought, planning, a structure. They had entered the account in two sets of books, one for the woman who never did Show, one for truth. Nioma set forth that the Creator Group was on hiatus, which turned out to signify a yawn, a break. This was a hiatal hernia amid the life of this transcendant body; it was pelvic. Nioma professed something called a Conflict, improbably limited to a certain weeknight, a fracture in the temporal pubic bone of the larger body.

“We’re just on hiatus. I tried to—”

“Is the group meeting?”

“No. It’s just a vacation for a while. I’ve tried several times to reach you, but... we know you’re not at your office, and—”

“I took out the phone. I needed not to be...”

“I’m sure you needed a period of calm, Rosalie.”

“I keep driving over, and all I get is your house locked up with the lights off. Locked up and you’re gone, Nioma, on the nights when we gather. That was the only night when everyone was free.”

“No one else—”

“Where are you meeting now?”

“We’re not meeting.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, why would you exclude me? Why would you? It’s just a question in my mind.” She took care to keep her lips curved pleasantly, her look of inquiry unchallenging.

“I don’t know why you’d think we were, Rosalie.”

 Rosalie intended to ignore non sequiturs and decoys. There was such a thing as friendly assertiveness, keeping to the point, insisting without commiting assault. “When you don’t tell me, a person feels doubted.”

“We all try to keep focused. And it seemed you didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Yes. I see.” Rosalie edged loose and walked around to the other side to the car, and commented gently, dryly, “What did I violate, I wonder. What am I asked to do? I don’t see what I could have done, Nioma. Come charging in some night and pull down my panties?”

“Wh—”

“Why would it even occur to anyone... Nioma, I bled!”

“Let’s stay calm.”

“Oh, we are. Yes. All right.”

“I know you need to be going...” Nioma said. Calmly. “Rosalie, we’re nothing but sympathy.”

“Mm. That’s, that’s appreciated. I do. But what are you sympathetic about? It matters. A condition? What kind of thing? I was pregnant and then I, I was, dis, dismayed. My illustrations were truthful. I was open and I shared it, as I grew. I said the doctors had some concerns. I shared that. She miscarried, and I shared that.”

“Please...don’t. Not one—”

“Just because I didn’t damn Show.”

“It wasn’t that.”

“Fine. What was it?”

“It’s just a pause. We all want to understand. We respected your state.”

“My state? I was pregnant!” And then arrived—  “Does this have to do with Manfred Trust?”

“Why—”

“Sanford Kinz doesn’t know everything, Nioma.”

“No one,” smiled Nioma, “knows everything.”

 

21

 

At home she lay on her bed, too perplexed at hurt to weep over it. She needed to pay close attention.

She rose and watched herself in the mirror and determined herself to an objective consideration of matters. It was possible, of course, that she herself was somewhere at fault. Something she had said, well-meant, someone’s interpretation unanticipated...

If Sanford Kinz had come to resent her probing—men feel such probing to be feminizing—and had brought this inner disturbance to the Creators—

We won’t Be There For Her. Rosalie drew a whisk of amusement from the idea of all those women, and two men, locking the door, hiding at her footsteps on the walk...

I’m getting ahead of myself, she thought. But still she envisioned them beneath the chairs.

Friends wouldn’t have believed Sanford Kinz. Here, a bitter man, blunted by the failure of office romance, emasculated, a showy fictionizer dispensing humilations there at night week after week, bringing forth writings of some value and thus competing and quashing the others, a rival for the flecks of kindness—with private smiles they would have discounted him, politely; they gathered, after all, to critique, not gulp in. Friends would dismiss groundless intimations.

But of course they did come to believe ill of her. Some inclination in that direction had evolved.

These were her friends. To not know her well enough—

Illustrations, she thought. If she illustrates her life, perhaps her life is just something produced, a visible fiction to be held up, and now this pregnancy, she calls it, declared, shared, but with no evidence...

Nioma, hard, would be more than willing to think that.

These were her friends.

To not know her well enough—

To maintain for months a rococco facade of busy little conversations and tender hopeful looks back and forth, craving something from one another, in a circle of chairs; and elsewhere, before, behind walls, elsewhere—the real conversations spat back and forth, no longer Looking but squinting—

What would be the purpose of a hoax, anyway? Had she ever hinted by any word or look or line on a sketchpad...

Was it so important, among intimate friends, to Show?

Yet she also was being suspicious; that was fact. Yes, fact: she would be honest with herself. She would show herself the courtesy the Creators and the Manfred Trusters had tossed aside.

She was, this day, this instant, indignant and hurt; and it was not the best environment for clear thinking. Why couldn’t it have all been nothing, this schema of hers? They had been nurturing, attentive, all through it, even when she told them of the miscarriage—

But of course she hadn’t told them. Nioma had. Rosalie had only sent a letter, a sorry little letter.

They ought to have tested it chemically, for tears.

A few looks in the eyes of Sanford Kinz. ...No, it couldn’t have been him.

She had come to grasp him.

Yet—

There was what they called hubris.

All that time, all those conversations, he could have been reading her; writers read; writing is only reading reversed, a backpressure. As she methodically teased him open—Sanford Kinz all those months—something in him might have come out like a vapor, contempt, amusement, recounting each day to...

Connie, at home...

If he even had a home. Let him prove it.

A phone number is not a home. A woman’s voice is not a wife.

Now, she smiled, now. Suspicions, conspiracies flinging out rootlets into absurdity, nonexistent lawns to be mowed... She herself was doing it. Doubting where no doubt is reasonable. Doubting the dull normality of daily things, un-knowing what was already known.

But there is truth. There is truth.

What motive could a woman possibly have, be even suspected of having, to counterfeit a having, rounded with a loss...

If their acceptance depended on Showing, not words, not illustrations—

I might’ve stuffed myself up with pillows, she thought.

Outcision.

There is truth.

She went into the bathroom and looked at the trash basket, looked on the tiles beneath the sink. There had still been a little bleeding after she had been discharged. Discharged. Still bleeding from the actual fact, the fact that had pried open their distrust, but it had been only the smallest fleck of human rust, perfectly normal...

She didn’t remember, specifically, when she’d cleaned it up, a little smear right at the edge of the yellow basket, when she’d thrown away those little strips of gauze touched so slightly by those final gasps of blood.

If she could find them, they, her friends, Manfred Trust, Creators, could test it for her bloodtype, her DNA. Or she could provide the number of her doctor, who would be returning soon; provide certified, notarized copies of the documents, the orders, the lab tests, the entry into the hospital.

Such things could be faked.

It would do no good at all.

She wondered when they’d stopped believing in her.

She returned, objective, to her bed and now she wept.


 

UNINHABITED

 

1

 

After a decent interval of some time, time barely occupied, she called Sanford Kinz and a woman’s voice answered, the familar voice, no doubt his wife, surely no doubt.

“I’ll get him,” she said.

And he came on: Hello?

Hi, Sanford. Is it all right, my calling?

Sure.

I’m fine. How are you?

He made a sound but didn’t answer for a fragment. Then: Fine.

I suppose they all want to know what happened.

At work?

They’re all friends, but I needed to get out, I really did. That was all. I thought I could go back and be cheerful. But a miscarriage, the loss—

We all understand.

I know, she rushed forward. —Because friends do. That’s friends—the word.

It sure is.

So is the group meeting?

Sanford, nicely prepared, did not hesitate. —Well, not now. You know, we’re on hiatus.

For Nioma had drilled them all, provided them with that pompous word. —I spoke to Nioma, but she was indefinite, as to how lengthy.

Oh, it just depends. It’s her—

Her house and it’s big and you have to meet there.

There’s really nowhere else.

Really? No? I don’t know the houses of others and how big they are. Do you all know each others’ houses? she asked.

—...

And then blank silence.

I miss being able to talk to you, she said.

His instant reply was Oh, I’m still writing.

Which was irrelevant, of course. He was declining to repeat and affirm, to confirm in little ways their linkage. Rosalie said That’s good. I draw...I’ve drawn all of this. I’m illustrating. After I talked to Nioma—you know I went over there; and I turned off my phone, you know—then afterwards I illustrated what had been said, how it had been said.

—Oh?

She now edged forward, into view, It seems...there’s a feeling—no, I had a feeling...

—Hm?

—Nioma seemed to be saying that there was some, some little feeling, that in the group, the Creators—I’m sure you were present, when it was talked about...

He chirped, What was?

I think, she said, that I was asking for a little too much. I might’ve seemed like a person exaggerating. Or taking advantage of friendships, there in the circle. There’s a level of competition—I don’t take it personally; it’s human nature—people’s lives aren’t always so interesting to others, I know. Mine wasn’t overly metaphysical—I just meant to share ordinary things because of what they meant to me and about me.

And still his words came too easily. —We all thought of you as very open, Rosalie.

I sort’ve waved my vulnerability around.

You showed your pictures.

She paused over this idea. —Was that it? she mused, askingly.

—Roz, no one ever complained about you.

Which pretty much said that they had indeed, but a lie was as always the prefered defense. She asked, Why would they?”

—No one denounced you. There were no secret trials on or under those chairs, any chairs, anywhere. Everyone likes you.

—Sanford...But I made myself so raw. It’s like peeling your skin in public, out on a street while people are Looking. I can see that it might be resented, the time I took. I took it to myself, away from them. I went on about what it meant, my daughter, completion. It was something every week. Don’t people find that selfish?

—Look, come on. Nothing was wrong.

Rosalie noted the past tense, was, not is. —Nioma said there was a feeling. A kind of, well, you could compare it to resentment.

—Of...

Suspicion. A pulling-apart of trust. As if...because I didn’t Show...and then it didn’t happen...”

Another “...” and this for rather a long time. Rosalie rode it out.

And then finally he said as if it settled something: The Creation Group is on hiatus right now.

I was so hurt. I’m still hurting.

—Hasn’t your husband been attentive?

Rosalie said: I wanted so much, so much to have...

—Yeah. I know. I understand. We all do. We think of you.

—And write little stories and poems and all these nice things. That’s how you feel, how you go about it, your instrument for feeling. You feel by creating, the things you create. Your feeling-nerves are outside your skin, in your creations.

—I’m glad you called.

And so Rosalie knew that the conversation would remain nothing but approximation. —Hello to Janice. Won’t you?

—Sure.

And all my friends.

And then they were hung up: the condition, the state of being, of being hung up.

Hours later, it was surely the same day, she discovered something true. One thing True.

 

2

 

What she discovered was something underneath. She had been down there, a few times, now and then, part way down the wooden steps. There was little need. There was plenty of space—too much space—here above. The one room, reserved for a child, was almost empty, a sunny room in the mornings, a pastel room. Extra things would find themselves there. There was scarcely any use to the underneath.

And it didn’t amount to much. It was hardly a real cellar, not like the house she had grown up in where the cellar was a vast gallery of spiderwebs and furniture wrapped in old dirty sheets, with a pool table and an ancient jukebox. This suburban basement here below was merely a place for ductwork and pipes, the water heater, the flimsy metal box like an upright coffin that held the furnace and forced air apparatus. Some old paint cans on a plastic tarp. A woman’s cheap raincoat, torn, heaped raggedly on the floor—vague enough; but it still lingered in Rosalie’s mind, that raincoat.

There was nothing interesting about it. It wasn’t a gothic maze, a catacomb. No hanging bats, no skulls. It wasn’t even particularly musty or dirty, she recalled. The concrete slab had been washed by the previous owners; if it had even acquired any sort of unwanted coating for the years since the 70’s. She remembered the underneath, the room, as vacuum-cleaned, rather low, almost brushing the top of her hair.

Where, even, was the door?

She wandered a bit and found it again in the third likely place. Oh, that’s right, she thought. What she called the Mop Closet extended a few feet further sideways; the door was at the back of the niche.

She flicked on the closet light, 25 watt. It was just a little utility closet.

The door to the basement was just a smooth surface in paint that seemed, in that light, colorless. There was a round knob, brass. No lock, no place for a lock, no need for a lock. Just a knob. In fact, there was no need to turn it. The basement door was held shut by a catch in the manner of a kitchen cabinet door.

In front of the door, the closet floor had been kept clear. She pivoted aside the folded stepladder, foolishly small and weak as tinfoil, touched the knob, disengaged the door from the catch, pushed the door open with her fingertips.

The closet light shown on some blond wooden steps. After all these years they still seemed fresh-sawed, their side-cuts crisply pale, splintery at the edge.

She descended cautiously.

It was cool, of course, but not uncomfortably so. The trapped air didn’t seem particularly old. There was a sharpness, perhaps pine; even now, after decades, deaths, the freshcut wood planks maintained their aroma. She remembered her father’s workbench, his vise, his circular saw, sawdust, the tools hanging on pegboard. They were probably still hanging there in place, at the old house, with her parents and the new little dog, a pug, a very creased little thing.

Only a few steps, a few feet, a lit rectangle at the bottom spread across a bit of smooth concrete. The light, dashed faintly about, was just enough to give the feel of the place, to show where there were walls and the few objects inhabiting the basement.

She remembered a light switch on the wall, next to where the steps came down. She padded across in soft slippers and found it. The single 100 watt bulb—probably the very one that had been there from the first, when the tract had sprouted up, never replaced—was set sideways, cupped in its thick white socket of that stuff that was like heavy seashell, on the wall.

Light. Under that brightness the basement leapt into being a real room. It might have been a dining room, a family room. No furniture, but it had potential and felt comfortable, safe beneath its low ceiling.

But this basement was, after all, one big emptiness, all the way across, as wide and long as the house above. Rooms are not usually encountered so large, not in a demure suburban home. It was strange to see walls so far from the eye beneath a ceiling so unnaturally low. The friendly light reached them only hesitantly. 100 watts didn’t amount to much after all.

She crossed the bare floor.

She was looking for that old raincoat.

 

3

 

At some point, perhaps years ago, the raincoat had rested more or less out in the middle of the concrete; but now she couldn’t see it.

She turned, looking. Across the way was a sort of alcove, one of several created by vertical ridges, like half-columns, of rough white material that extended a couple feet from the walls into the room. The alcove was something like seven feet broad. She could see the gallon paint cans, quite a few of them, a couple rows of them crosswise to her, sometimes two stacked, sometimes smaller cans on top of that, a mountainous geography. They stretched rather untidily across the alcove floor, paralleling the wall; and now she saw that the plastic tarp they rested on had been pulled over them like a bedsheet, the raincoat spread conclusively on top.

“But still old paint cans can be a danger.” Didn’t such things explode or combust or something spontaneous? You couldn’t just put them in the trash. You had to take them to special places.

Then again, she thought she recalled that they were empty, inner skin very dry and hard, outsides rusty. Left by the people who had died.

She took three steps closer but stopped. Not for today.

That old raincoat—let it rest unmolested for a little longer.

I don’t think it’ll care, she thought. It won’t feel abandoned. It hasn’t been excluded; it was never included. Just dropped.

She smiled, and thought that when a person smiles alone it’s a sign of something unfortunate. It sounded to her mind like a Chinese proverb.

 

4

 

But she reconsidered. There were newspapers spread beneath the tarp, fanned on the concrete. Rosalie came closer, bent down. They were yellowed. But newspapers are one of the cheap things in this world that quickly turn yellow, brittle, fragile. They exist to be read in their time, only then. In even just a day they begin to cease to be real.

Her face still low, she tried to make out dates, headlines, but the tarp obscured them. She saw the blurred colored patches beneath the tarp, different colors of paint, colored clouds beneath plastic, all those old cans. Near the gap where the wrapping stopped was the smell of oily substance, after these years still quietly insistent up close, in whispers. Those people, the dead people, man and wife, who had raised children now somewhere growing old, their memories leaking away—the dead couple lingered in the smell of their work.

 

5

 

She straightened and turned and stood in the center of the low room. She examined the bare walls. She felt unwilling to leave.

She approached one of the dim walls—

Something lay in front of the wall, casting a four threads of shadow into the grayness of other shadows. It was flat, flush with the floor, square, with something of a raised frame surrounding it; a substantial frame, artless, merely four lengths of two-by-four joined at the corners, the edge of something, a horizon.

It was filled with a square of rough wood, no broader than the seat of a kitchen table chair, crudely covered in paint. Paint from the cans...

Near one side of the panel was a small metal handle, a cheap thing, not decorative, from a hardware store. And now she saw another, in shadow at the opposite edge.

Two handles. There were no hinges, no latches. It was to be lifted.

 

6

 

It was a door.

 

7

 

She regarded it for some time. What was she remembering? Mm. Out by the street, in the lawn of the old house, her parents’ house—a rectangle of cement set in the ground, very small. No handles, just a little slot piercing it in the middle; something, some special tool, was to be slipped in, turned; and then you pull up and it yeilds. Water Meter was carved into the concrete. It was fascinating, to a toddler a mystery door to the unknown. But she had never found a way to lift it.

But this, this door, had handles.

 

8

 

She bent low, clutched, lifted. It came loose with a slight tug, a sound of resolute paint sticking here and there along the crack.

She set the square board aside on the floor and looked down into the square gap.

What she had thought were two-by-fours forming a frame were, in fact, the protruding top edges of a neat wooden shaft, so very narrow and tight. The door, the lid to the shaft, had rested on a narrow lip of wood. Or four lips, depending on how one should divide lips and count them. The sides of a square of shadow. Just a splash of angled light from the 100 watt bulb, dimmed by feet and yards.

A wall of painted plywood, down into darkness that was melted at the upper margin, the frontier, by the last redoubt of the basement light.

It struck her as peculiar, the way light joined darkness by becoming paler. Pale, pastel darkness, whispering away. Into...

 

9

 

Into...

 

10

 

She was curious to know what lay down in this further-below. She envisioned a tangle of pipes, electrical conduits in their segmented tin snail shells; perhaps even something like a peculiar fusebox, or a face with small flickering dials. Or, of course, nothing.

She blinked down into it.

There was nothing beyond the vague edge of the light, angled. She made out, at most, the top couple feet of the shaft.

If I just reached down and stretched my arm...

Would her fingers brush something damp? And then she would find grime beneath her fingernails.

She knelt and stretched down. Her shadow had already entered the shaft, crowding aside the light.

She felt nothing, and lay flat; then she edged forward, one hand holding on, thrusting her shoulders down, stretching with one arm. Vacuity ringing empty. It was like a clapper with no bell.

She struggled herself back and up and sat on the polished concrete.

She looked for a coin to drop, or a nail, or a pebble. She could drop a slipper, but if it were deep or choked with...

She yanked and pried at a button on her blouse. It wouldn’t give. She broke a nail.

She wondered if the matter were important enough to get the raincoat, to bestow some heroism upon it; but cloth fluttering down would hardly make a noise worth the violation of discomfiting the thing. And Rosalie didn’t care to come near the paint cans and their ghosts and placif memories.

She attacked the button again...

There, on her finger, a ring.

She pried and twisted it off, with pain.

Standing, she held it out over the middle and let go.

 

11

 

Too long a silence, surely longer than one would think.

 

12

 

Then the ching, faint, doubled by a bounce.

Perhaps, I think, not just several more feet, but several yards. Ten feet. Twelve. Then, by that sound, not cement or dirt or metal pipe. No, wood.

A box, a crate. But most likely just the plywood walls bent sideways into a floor, another little square. The thing is all wooden, like a tiny sauna.

And that image led to another. The vertical shaft might slant, might bend away. It might lead toward the street, toward the sewer system.

This shaft might be an unused notion. This shaft might have never found employment. It was probably empty.

No, she thought. My ring is down there now.

 

13

 

She would have to descend.

 

15

 

Have to.

 

16

 

But the bottom of this hole was far down. The stepladder wouldn’t touch. Even the big wood ladder in the garage would just drop away out of her hands.

Of course I might just take a look down with a light, she thought, chiding and amused at herself.

She went above, blinking in the sunlight, and found the heavy flashlight.

Below she stood at the edge and flicked the light on and swung the beam into the shaft, down along the walls, leaning over to see. The sides of the shaft, the plywood, went down only a foot or so further than she had been able to reach. They ended with another neat, square aperture, horizontal, a perfect parallel to this one at her toes. Below that, no walls, just a wide space now penetrated by light.

Then after a certain number of feet, not many, the light shone on wooden planks, a floor. And there was the gleam, the stone in the ring.

All in all, perhaps ten, twelve feet of descent.

 

17

 

She dropped the lid of the shaft onto its lips and climbed back up into daylight, closing the mop closet door behind her.

It would be more like mountaineering than merely going down one further flight, one further basement.

Rosalie took a look at the time, the calendar, the telephone.

—Hello? A man’s voice, thank you.

—It’s Rosalie, Sanford. Hi!

With meaning, with pleasure: Hi! he said.

You busy?

It’s wonderful to hear your voice.

I’ve missed...

—They were such good conversations, weren’t they?

—Sanford—short notice—but—

He cut in, Friends don’t mind. What have you uncovered, Roz?

—It is an uncovery.

—Then I’ll come. What do you need? for he knew she needed.

—It’s a room underneath the basement, kind of a subcellar. There’s a shaft, a vertical shaft through the floor. I pulled up the lid and dropped my ring down into it...

—We’ll have to recover that ring, won’t we? What we need is something along the lines of mountain-climbing gear.

That’s what I was thinking, she said.

—There are also special ladders for climbing trees to prune them. There are climb-ropes. There are spikes that you carry to pound into the sides of cliffs, right into rock.

—I was thinking of something like a rope ladder.

—We could tie the ends to the stair supports.

—I saw rope ladders at the sports store.

I’ll bring a flashlamp, he said.

 

18

 

Sanford tied the ends of the rope ladder, very long, to the stair support struts, two-by-fours, as he had said. She dropped the other end down the hole. It clomped on the lower wood floor, yards to spare, in a loose pile.

He looked at Rosalie, really looked now, eyes with diamond highlights from his flashlamp, which was much larger and more powerful than hers.

She said, I’m ready.

He said, You’re the sort of person who’s always ready aren’t you Roz.

She said, come along.

He helped her over the edge, onto the ladder, her feet thrusting down making a V of the cross-cord, drawing together the ropes. His hands on her wrists were like a pillowcase of flesh covering a vice.

Thank you, she said. I’m descending into a juvenile book adventure, she said.

Nancy Drew, he said.

Uh-huh. The Mystery of the Secret Room.

She continued the twisting climbdown, feeling like taffy, and when her head was down far enough he swung over with a certain grace and followed her. She saw the grass stains—crushed smeared grass, in fact—on the corrugation of his shoes.

You know Roz, he said, I don’t know whether this will be a story or a poem. Sometimes it doesn’t become what it is right away...

It’s something to illustrate, she said a little short of breath, stepping down as the rope ladder rocked, twisted, swung her shoulder against the clean plywood which hadn’t aged in years.

Then her shoulders were below the level of the ceiling. Hand me the lamp, she said, and he passed it down.

Two more steps and she shone the lamp around.

What is it? he asked. What is it, Nancy? A den of counterfeiters?

—No, it’s...

But rather than complete the thought she stepped down further and hopped onto the floor, wooden planks, strong with a suggestion of some girding thickness and firmness beneath. Yet even so, it seemed to her there was a bit of give, as if they didn’t rest upon concrete or earth.

When he had joined her she swiveled the flashlamp. The room was large, perhaps as large as the basement above them, or larger; yes, for the overall shape and proportions were different. It was partly under the front lawn. That was the horizontal. The vertical was slanted and peaked. The ceiling was crouch-low along two sides where the slant came down, but in the midline too high to touch. Black tarpaper showed between the crisscross of pine beams.

Well it’s not a subcellar, said Sanford. It’s an attic.

—Yes.

That ceiling has a roof above it, he said. Don’t you think? Even with shingles, bet. Look Roz—chimney going up, right through the ceiling. All this stuff—

He spread the light across the floor. The further reaches of the floor heaped with mounded, gauzy stuff. The wood planking lay beneath this bed of phony snow, covered over. She strode over and stooped and ran her fingers over it. It’s prickly, she said. It’s something they blow into the attic, to trap heat and keep out cold. What do they call it? Spun glass?

He said the word insulation. But Roz, he said, we’re underground. Who needs insulation underground?

She said, I don’t know what this is.

They explored, for there were things to explore and discover. Bland cardboard boxes waited, sunk down into the foamy white stuff under them. There were words scrawled on the sides in thick marking pen. Jerry’s toys. kitchen. jars from mom. camping.

One big box had a picture of a TV set. The top had been opened, ripped, resealed at last with some wide utility tape.

There were a couple suitcases standing neatly at attention. Rosalie shook them. Soundlessly hollow, rattling with emptiness.

Some extension cords, coiled.

A tangle of Christmas tree lights, with a few empty sockets and one broken bulb, its pieces lying on the wood planking.

Not much dust, said Sanford. Someone’s been vacuuming.

Rosalie pointed out that a sealed room might not accumulate dust, even over years, decades.

Sanford’s forehead crinkled up. What do you s’pose that old couple did down here? he asked without aim.

She noted, They weren’t always old. They started out young.

He wondered—he wondered it several times—just how long this subterranean attic had lain in wait down here, unvisited.

And you didn’t know it was here? he asked her.

She replied, No. But really, I hardly ever went down to the basement; I don’t know if I did at all, matter of fact. —But, well, she said, I remember the raincoat and those old cans. I guess I did.

But you didn’t know about the, the shaft? The lid?

I never went so far. I never looked around. It’s only since the Creators that I explore.

There was a low dune of magazines, perhaps once a neat pile, dustless. Sanford bent down then waved her over to look at the top one.

 

19

 

The cover date was nine months previous.

 

20

 

Sanford sifted through the mass that slid on petals of slick paper. Its lower strata went back several years, two or three, but the top few had been printed within the year, this year, this.

Rosalie, he said, not that it’s my business, but what is this? Nice that you have this extra storage space and that you fixed it up

(no; he said tricked it up)

to look like an attic with a peaked roof and even a brick chimney, if that’s even brick. But why did you say you didn’t know about it?

She stared at him and felt hurt. —I’ve never been down here, she said. I didn’t know anything about this room. Those magazines—

She picked one up.

—I don’t golf, she said. Or this—I don’t care about the soaps. I barely watch TV, Sanford.

Yes, he said, but Roz they’re all recent. Not going back to the old owners. Someone—

I know they didn’t sprout down here, she said. I’m not psychotic.

 

21

 

But no one had been living down there either. There was no bed, no furniture, not even a lightbulb socket. It was a place where things had been shoved, unwanted things in the way. The unnecessities of home life.

—Do you believe me, Sanford? she asked without blinking.

(no, she had said Believe in me)

For she only wanted to know the truth, what this is, as a label for this folder of eventual remembrance, a small vacation into the ground, to classify it and equally to classify Sanford Kinz.

I’ve always believed in you, he said with sweet warmth. —I defended you. At the office, in the group, to Nioma and the Scrawny and all of them; I told them you were honest and decent, you wouldn’t lie, you just wanted to be part of their lives. You shared your pregnancy and that was real and you lost the baby as people do sometimes and that was real. I told them that. You talk about having belief, Roz, but you took a little silence and some distracted looks on my face and you tossed it into the air like foil icicles on a Christmas tree and let it land in a clump.

No Sanford, she said. I didn’t...

All right, she said after; I was wrong. I’m glad to know I was wrong.

He nodded. The truth is exactly what’s hardest to believe, he said.

 

22

 

There were no detectives’ trails to follow across the floor. The planking was clean and, now suspiciously, unscuffed; unaged; the insulation was too uneven to yield footprints.

Who’s Jerry? asked Sanford.

—I don’t know anyone by that name. I did once, I guess, in high school.

—Everyone knows a Jerry once, Roz.

It was just a kid, she said and then added: But this is a kid. It’s toys.

He smiled and reminded her, Adults can have toys.

Rosalie agreed hastily, Your writing is your toy, Sanford. So’s my drawing, illustrating.

—We should open these and make it Christmas, he said not raising the question of precisely what she illustrated; and he thumped some fingers on the cardboard.

But she was discouraged and said, Why? It’s just jars and camping stuff—it’s junk. It’s useful things that accumulate, and they remain accumulated when they’re not useful any more. I have things like that upstairs, mostly in the one room.

But not magazines, he commented.

—A few. I didn’t say I absolutely didn’t read, Sanford. Are you thinking maybe I don’t like words? I wasn’t being hypocritical when I sat and listened to you and the Creators. I did pay attention to those words.

—I know. Roz. Don’t you want to find out who uses this place?

—Of course I do.

 

23

 

It’s kind of an insult, an assault, not to know.

 

24

 

—I’m not angry. But it’s startling to come across something like this.

He said, I can imagine. It’s an absurdity and illegal for someone to come on to your property without permission and engage in...at least it’s illegal dumping. To abandon things, even kitchenware, without permission...

—It depends on how they come and go, isn’t that it? If they went through the house and down to the basement... But, she went on, Wouldn’t there be rungs on the side of the shaft? Don’t you think? Coming and going so often and you wouldn’t care to lug a big ladder. And these big boxes...

—There’d have to be another way in. Under your lawn, probably from your neighbor’s house. Roz, it could even go under the street and connect up to the sewer...

She laughed a tweak and said, The Mystery of the Hidden Subway.

—Spies, part of a vast network of evil, undermining American suburbia.

—With toys and Christmas lights. Sanford, if this is all it is...

—There may be another door.

They looked and there was.

 

25

 

It was in the floor very near to where the ceiling came slanting down, a real door, if a door can be horizontal and perfectly square not rectangular, with hinges. A door not a lid. Not like the other; though like the other, facing up and hiding down.

He stood next to it, head bobbed down but touching the ceiling planks for balance, and she stood next to him.

—Looks unlocked, he said in its direction.

She said What does it mean, to look unlocked?

—No lock. No place for it.

—But it could be padlocked underneath.

Mm-hmm, he said. —Why do we stand here speculating?

Maybe, she said, so as not to be disappointed.

There was a grab-handle of thick rope, fresh-looking rope, and she knelt and stretched over and grasped the big luggy knot. She pulled and almost toppled over. The door was heavy. It twitched up a half-inch, showing white sides in a sliver, then whuffed back into place as her balance wavered.

—I have longer arms, Sanford said.

He took over. His hand, one, two, hooked around the knot like a gardener’s claw. His childlike muscles poked out. He used his arms less as lifting engines than as extensions of the rope, pulling them taut in a V and rocking back. The wooden door swung up and flopped over open.

Rosalie picked the flashlamp up from the floor and shone it down through the square. The sides of the opening, nicely plastered and painted, were about ten inches thick.

Below them was darkness and openness, for this floor upon which they stood was a roof, and beneath that roof was a ceiling, and under that ceiling was another room, a room beneath an attic beneath a basement, beneath a nice modern but not new house in a suburban tract.

 

26

 

The lamplight fell as a square amid shadow on something spongy and dulled. That, said Sanford, that’s a carpet.

They looked and he went on, Roz there’s a wall running along, see? What we have here is a hallway.

—A tunnel.

—But see, Roz, secret tunnels, smuggling tunnels like under the border for drugs, or terrorist tunnels under Israel, they don’t necessarily have carpeting.

—But this is a suburban middle-class tunnel, she said and then smiled up briefly like a wink.

—Okay I think, what I think is, when they built your house and dug out the ground, and your neighbor’s, they connected them with nice clean hallways underground. Maybe in the 70’s the tract planners had this plan to...

Rosalie rocked back and sat full on the floor and said Plan to do what? with what she feared was sarcasm.

Don’t ask me, he said, I live across town.

She nodded. —This tract was called Elmview Glade. Just another part of the big suburban spill, like you know spilled soup blobbing out everywhere across the floor with its little chunks. Nothing unique or interesting.

This, he said, is interesting.

—You know it doesn’t really head toward the neighbors, not either one, not the Crains, not the—I couldn’t imagine the Zembergs being part of a thing like this, and they were original owners from 1971. Well of course it could be like halls in a house that crisscross and who knows from a part where it goes to.

Sanford said the word Labyrinth and then said Or it’s like those puzzle pages, do you know what I mean? where you try to draw a line from the outside to the center? —oh, mazes.

—It’s just a space with a wall and a carpet. It’s just a storage space. It probably stops just outside what we see. Things just are never, she said, all that exotic and romantic. You never do find counterfeiters in the basement or equipment that produces ghosts. Story authors can’t tell about life, because Life doesn’t have a story in it, it’s all just fact fact fact. Life is just realistic, Sanford, and what’s to say?

Now now, he said, having awaited his opening tolerantly. Sometimes they’ve found bodies, or starving children. Sex slaves—from Thailand or Burma or something. And there was that woman, remember, who kept her retarded kid tied to a chair from when he was born to nine or ten.

She laughed, Oh I don’t really think this is anything that good, just some funny quirk of architecture.

Except, he began and then stopped and then resumed Except we know that this place has been in use even now.

—Gives us something to talk about, she said and she refused to find any of this ominous or more than some curious circumstance.

 

27

 

He asked what she wanted to do, which came to mean What do you want me to do with you?

 

28

 

—I don’t know, she answered knowing that it wasn’t an answer.

—You could walk away. The Facts are just a couple flights up.

—The Facts, it sounds like a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Fact, the Facts welcome you to our home where Love Is Spoken. Back to reality above but I don’t think I really want to go back to it just yet.

And, he pointed out, this, this here, is also a fact. You didn’t dream this up. Here it is. You could take a picture and if I had a rolled metal measuring tape I could unroll it and measure this opening.

My dad has one, she nodded. —Really I can’t stop here, not just let it drop, but I don’t feel like being pushed too much right now into this hole. We’re underground. That makes a difference and really this is all more than a little much.

—A lot to take in.

—And you have to go back, you yourself. I’ve borrowed you and you’re my witness but I can’t really ask you to keep exploring, just go to your damn secret meeting and tell them that under Rosalie’s house is something that they really will just have to reject.

Things like this don’t happen, said Sanford. No. But really I suppose it’s just a Thing, Roz, just another Fact after all.

—Yep. It seems that now and then under suburban tract homes, however neat and nice they are, there are other slices of suburban tract home.

Sanford nodded slightly—it was mainly by implication—and gently swung the door over and shut. But it was shut only tentatively and provisionally, not with any harsh determinateness.

They still looked at it. He said This is not as safe as you think. Someone comes down here. Someone uses this room. You’re living up there nice and neat and down here someone you don’t know puts things in boxes and shoves them around and stacks magazines. You may not be worried, you may think this is more like adventure or something, Roz, but it’s a violation of your rights and property, definitely as long as there’s an open connection to your basement. Your mop closet door, you keep it unlocked, is there even a latch? Whoever reads these magazines and keeps Jerry’s old toys, whoever that is, probably descends from your own home and could ascend into it whenever he wants to.

—Is it “he?”

—Golf magazines...

—Yes but soaps too. And who keeps toys but Mom?

—And who carries TV’s down a ladder but Dad?

They had to laugh and admit that it was most likely a couple or, she added, a transexual, pre and post op.

But then Sanford sucked in and became grave. Rosalie, there was a man who dismembered prostitutes in an underground storage space, and his wife was an accomplice and liked to watch and then they made love.

I think they just had sex, she stated.

 

29

 

And you know, Sanford, there’s no blood. There’s not even dust. Everything’s vacuumed. I’m sure the floor has been mopped.

—You don’t leave blood caking on the floor in snowdrifts. You mop it up. You vacuum up the hair and skin flakes and all the DNA.

Well yes, she admitted. And these boxes...some are unmarked.

I guess maybe I’d like to go up now, she said.

 

30

 

They rose and closed everything up as they returned and pulled up the rope ladder into a neat pile by the steps, and switched off the basement light.

Rosalie suddenly yanked herself to a halt and said Oh God I didn’t even get the ring!

—You wanted that raincoat...

—Leave it over the paint cans, she said. They smell a little. The basement should just be cleaned out and kept empty.

and they ascended.

 

31

 

Sanford urged her to call someone, the authorities, and she asked back What authorities in the world deal with unauthorized attics constructed years ago under your house? which he had to admit was a nice question.

They agreed to think things over and speak again the next day and take some action, and at least they would determine if the carpeted space at the bottom was small or very long and leading.

 

32

 

She decided that she might as well start dinner, and during the early stages found herself thinking that she hadn’t heard the thunk of the front door as it shut. After a time she went to look. It was shut and in place. She returned to the kitchen and found herself invigorated.

 

33

 

She cleared away the dishes after dinner and took out the big pad. She tried to sketch out a picture of the day, but after a bit of Sanford Kinz and something representing the wooden steps she discovered herself staring unmoving at the white vastnesses of the paper, staring for some time, even some incredible gape of time. So she put it away.

 

34

 

The next morning, of course, awakening and remembering that she was still unemployed and money would soon become hard and inelastic as a dry old pencil eraser, she wondered if such an odd thing had really happened. It couldn’t have been a dream. It didn’t have the existential aroma of a dream, and yet, and yet.

She went into the kitchen. She glanced at the pad and the barely recognizable outline of Sanford Kinz and the wooden steps. Of course, there it is, I did it, she assurred herself. And yet, and yet.

Rosalie went into the mop closet and there was the door, and there on the closet floor next to it was the flashlamp, his flashlamp, that he had left for her.

She picked it up and opened the door and shone it down. Yes, the wooden steps, and yes, at the bottom was the rope ladder coiled in a heap, still tied to the supports. So she was reassured.

 

35

 

Midmorning she saw Mrs. Zemberg out gardening in the sun, and went over and made light chat, cardboardy chat, at such length that Rosalie felt shame for doing it.

“You know...” Rosalie said finally, “well, you have a basement in your house, don’t you?”

Mrs. Zemberg didn’t nod or show any surprise; but then she was rather elderly and had had a great deal of experience. “I think they all do, don’t they? The houses are all on the same plan. Basically the same?”

“Yes. But I just wondered Do you have another space further down, underneath the basement?”

“A space? You mean under the slab?”

“I don’t know...about the slab...I have a little trap door that covers a shaft connecting to a big storage space.”

“Oh? You do, Rose?”

“I didn’t even know it was there, all this time.”

“A big space?”

“It’s as big as a room.”

Mrs. Zemberg smiled, “Oh, we don’t have anything like that. It would be nice, though; all the things you accumulate, and we’ve been here—well we’re originals, you know.”

“Well, still...” Rosalie persisted, “it’s flat in the floor, flushed,  and I never noticed it. If you have a lot of, of stuff, maybe it would have been under something...”

“It’s junk,” said Mrs. Zemberg. “It’s all just old accumulated junk, piled up, things leaning, even that old rake, God, why would we keep that?”

“So I’m just saying that under something—”

“If that’s it, Rose, then...well, Murr might know, he’s the one who lifts and carries, he’s the one who insisted we keep the goddam rake, honestly it’s all rusted and the blades, tines...” She held up a hand and spread the fingers and crinkled them in an arthritic fashion. “Bent up, completely useless. Why do people get attached to crap like that? Of course, we’re old. Sometimes you think, aha, keep some old thing and it holds you back against time. Doesn’t work, Rosalie. Forget the anchoring. Don’t let your husband talk you into nonsense like that. Old things...when they stop being usable, just pitch em out.”

Rosalie was nodding along and then was still, and then said, “I’m just curious. I don’t suspect you of anything. You’re always the sweetest people.”

“I, I’ll...Murr might know. Is there something wrong, with the space, radon gas or something? We do get some water pooling next to one of the walls, in the basement. ...But, um, is there—what do you use it for?”

“Nothing. Just some old magazines.” Rosalie thanked Mrs. Zemberg and went back inside.

 

36

 

Rosalie considered the possibility of research, a kind of historianship. She confronted a reluctance in herself for several days. There was something about going to, and into, places of stern awe and mystery like libraries, authoritative places, like soldiers in uniform—well no, like police officers in plainclothes but on suspicious duty—that loomed against her. It had been true for a long time, for years. Even in high school...but of course you conquer what you have to conquer, she was hardly going to fail an assignment by incompleting it or merely making up the facts to be counterchecked and disgraced in a public burning. And so, after days, checking the steps and the coiled rope ladder dutifully, she drove into urbia and thrust herself through the glass doors.

She made up a kind of story. Possibly the reference librarian didn’t require a story, a justification for this woman to impose upon her time. This sort of investigation might be rather common. “I suppose suburban wives are always on the trail of something,” Rosalie said to herself and then realized she had in fact spoken aloud.

But the librarian didn’t turn to look. “I think,” said the librarian. “Well. The history...of the suburban tracts...now if you mean the legal permissions, permits and so on...”

“Not exactly,” Rosalie said because she was not anxious to waste effort and incur disappointment, “not exactly that, but something more like house plans—for the different models of the tract homes, I think about seven of them—or maybe, I know, advertising pamphlets. Even little news stories, there must have been promotional stories, civic spirit frothy pieces.”

“From the 70’s.”

“If you would.”

“We’ve converted so much to digital,” said the woman as if it were a sad thing. “That cost money. When there were things that were almost never asked for...”

“Sure.”

“We still have the old microfiche.”

“It’s not ancient history,” Rosalie smiled patiently. “You were alive back then.”

Rosalie faced an ominous moment. “That’s...” But the librarian moved on to just nodding and then said, “We have access, in reference, as long as we still remember how to use the old system. And then it’ll be gone.”

“Could you help me, then?”

“I can do better than that. I can permit you to help yourself.” Though Rosalie smiled at this statement by the woman, she wondered later if it had really deserved her smile.

 

37

 

In the microfiche room—really just a storeroom for more semiforgotten things—they never turned on more than one of the light circuits. Only half the tubes were lit. This made perfect sense, as one wanted to minimize glare.

Rosalie was shown how to use the machine, and shown how the past was indexed and filed, and left brusquely to her own devices.

She went through the years and her eyes became squinty and tired and reluctant in the pursuit. There were old photos, bellbottoms, young civic mothers with their kids, crowds and ceremonies, news events, parking lot events, factless news. And there were news clippings. If the source were a newspaper she had heard of, ever, the clipping was very small and dismissive and a bit, she thought, condescending. But if it were a microscopic neighborhood throwaway with a name like Advertiser or Focus or Neighborhood Welcome, there were headlines. There were also ads; in fact, almost nothing beyond the front page but ads. She read them with some care. She found herself reading all of them, not just those relevant to her search.

That one is still in business, she thought. And that one is in the mall. But many, very many, were evaporated by the years.

She read the classified ads. Items for sale. She recognized none of the names. She notated them inwardly, Dead.

 

38

 

Rosalie moved to a different file drawer, and here she began to close in on her prey. She did find, at last, original brochures for Elmview Glade. There was a schematic map of aspiring streets that, then, were mostly uncompleted. There were unbuilt gradeschools and a new high school a-borning. There was a large rectangle inscribed Glade Hill Supermall Opening October 1972. And now it was just the Old Mall, dirty.

She found the floorplans.

The Continental.

Modern Supreme.

Ranchview.

Montego Heights.

Chateau Elegant.

Amsterdam.

Sparkle Impressive.

and it struck her that these models sounded like flavors of ice cream.

She had no idea which model was hers, not by name. But she narrowed it down to Modern Supreme and Montego Heights and studied the layouts, considering that the previous owners had added a bonus room when children probably named Michelle and Steven and Organa had begun to appear. So, Montego.

But it didn’t matter because these plans didn’t show the basements, which she knew they all had, much less what resided further below. Nor were such things promised.

Nor did zoning regulations speak of the matter.

Nor did maps of the area prior to tract development show anything but blankness and tomato fields and a few roads.

Her house was a void.

Still, she thought addressing her house with warmth, you did become a Montego Heights and that, dearest, is growth.

 

39

 

She tried to thank the woman who had helped her help herself but she was gone, so Rosalie left the lights on and left.

 

40

 

She told Sanford Kinz of her adventure and its blunted end.

But you tried, Roz, he said And it makes me fear and desire you all the more.

She replied: I appreciate that.

—I’ll be over tomorrow and we’ll go into it.

We will absolutely, she said.

 

41

 

The next day, tomorrow, they went down again and found the shaft lid still in place. They descended, a second rope ladder now tied to the end of the first, for they had to go further.

 

42

 

The under-attic was of course the same. It had slept dead and, with its family of boxes, comfortable.

—I wonder if it’d be hard to get power down here, she said to Sanford, and he said back that an extension cord could be run down from above.

Then we’d have some light, she noted.

He asked Why exactly do we need light? there’s nothing much here to look at.

 

43

 

They swung up the lid on the downward doorway and tossed the free end of the rope ladder into the space. It clattered in a very hushed way on the carpet and mounded in a heap on the plush.

Sanford insisted on going first and Rosalie assented with a degree of...but she wasn’t sure what it was a degree of.

Respectful of his daring she backed up a few steps across the wooden floor and watched his head disappear.

She stared at the empty space above the portal, stared for quite a while. There was no report from below.

Sanford? she called calmly.

The silence drew her forward to the edge. She saw looking down the bunch of ladder. Next to it was the flashlamp sitting alone on the carpet creating a triangle of illumination.

Sanford? she called.

She grabbed the rope and pulled it taut and sat on the edge of the door, then thrust her feet down into one of the spaces between the rope rungs. As she swung her weight down her feet were grasped as if in stirrups. —Would you hold the rope? she called as if expecting him to answer.

She descended the ten feet or so, the sides of the portal moving upward past her eyes like the conveyor belt of an assembly line; or a strip of film, for it seemed she was not so much descending into a story as into a movie.

What came into view was a hallway, lit with shadow in the splash of light, a clear and gentle light uttered by the lamp on the floor.

Of course the rope ladder swung and rotated.

She touched down. The carpet was thick enough but rather utilitarian. She rubbed her foot on it. There was no sign of dust.

Sanford had left no footprints.

She didn’t so much call as forcefully state his name, twice.

—Right here, he said from behind her.

The trap door, the door connecting to the attic above, which was also an attic below, was in the ceiling above the midpoint of the hallway. The hall wasn’t long at all. It appeared cross-halls joined it at either end, both jutting off one way only, limbs of L’s, keeping beneath the attic and forming in Rosalie’s mind a sort of bracket: that is, squared parentheses. Sanford Kinz stood at the junction at the end that had been behind her.

He said This is a house. These halls connect to rooms, just ordinary rooms in a house. I’ve seen bedrooms and a hall bathroom.

She nodded. —It’s not meant for storage, it’s meant for living.

—It’s a real house.

—Underground.

—Under your house, Roz.

She extricated herself from the ladder completely but didn’t approach him. She turned away and looked toward the other end.

Sanford continued It seems to me you own all this. Your property rights go downward. You own the lot and everything beneath, I think. You should go to a lawyer. Still, this is quite a find.

Yes, it seems almost unbelievable, she replied without looking at him. Sanford, she said, this isn’t abandoned.

—No. The magazines.

—I don’t think someone is just using all this to store magazines.

—I told you, it’s a house. No. They wouldn’t have taken down magazines and odd things and just stopped, that trap door would be too attractive. They would have descended further, into this. Even if an explorer stumbled upon the attic up there, just by happenstance, he, they, would see the door in the planks and feel compelled to keep going. No one would just stop and look at a closed door. Human beings are born to explore.

—I didn’t.

—You did. A child looks at a square on the ground, anything that’s at all like a square, and flat to the ground, and they want to lift it up and find a tunnel or secret fort.

Or the palace of Sleeping Beauty, Rosalie said. She sleeps underneath the ground forever and up above people and parents walk over her and ride bikes and park on top of, what’s that word? her bier.

—I haven’t run across her yet, he smiled at her. But there are bedrooms.

—Not furnished, are they?

—Oh yes, yes they are. The ones I’ve seen. Come on.

She came on and he led her around the corner into the cross-hall where he stood waiting.

 

44

 

This hallway was much longer and interrupted by ordinary doorways, all on one side, and there were framed pictures on the wall opposite them.

Oh, she said, the lamp. I’ll bring it.

She got it and as she handed it to Sanford a tiny wondering crossed her mind. No, it didn’t cross, it was just there. No, it wasn’t there anymore. No.

Sanford asked What did you say?

—No one said anything. I didn’t say anything.

—Come on. Look.

 

45

 

The pictures, one by one, were of the art kind. Household art, not real art: decor items selected for shape and harmonious color accent and inoffensiveness. They showed nothing in particular, only scenes and objects without any intimation of a history, a personal past. The pictured things were not in themselves part of the world, any world, only cogs in the machineries of easeful passage down a hall.

—You have to get from A to B without distraction, Sanford observed. These pictures just sit there on the wall. If you’re going to live in a house...

—Yes. It has to be comfortable.

—You don’t want any breakage of your concentration.

Rosalie wouldn’t let his remark stand. No, she said, it’s not concentration, it’s not having to concentrate. Concentration is what you’re forced to do outside.

—Did you concentrate at Trust?

—Oh, sure. I had to do my job, Sanford. Didn’t you concentrate?

—On you, he replied.

She didn’t care to comment, but said in a moment What I wish, is that there were photos.

—On the wall?

—If there were pictures of the family, even of a family vacation, then...we would know.

He said: As a matter of fact, you can know even by looking at scenery. It says something, what people take, don’t you think? You select what’s around you and snap it and by choosing you’ve written yourself right into the photo even if you’re not there. See?

—But there aren’t any. And then she had to add And cameras don’t snap anymore, do they, they just, sort’ve, well what sound does a button make? it’s just a something.

He had walked a few steps forward down the hall. These are all art pictures, he said. But in the rooms I’ll bet there are little framed photos just like you want.

She joined him and they turned toward a door—a doorway, the door itself standing aside in the deferential manner of a mute servant.

 

46

 

Why are we so philosophical down here? he said to Rosalie while staring into the bedroom.

—I think because it’s a way to avoid thinking.

—Does this all bother you?

—Not if we keep moving along. But if I started to dwell I expect I’d be...

—Let’s go in.

Thanks, she said, I was starting to dwell.

 

47

 

It was a smaller bedroom, not a master bedroom, but neither was it a child’s room, nor a nursery. It had a modest bed pushed up flankwise against a wall, and that, Rosalie thought, is what medium children do, older ones. It’s what she had done in those days.

There was a bedspread on it. Rosalie hadn’t seen a real bedspread in some time. Everyone seemed to use quilts, or comforters so lush and thick they could stand alone all night by the bed and watch.

The bedspread had an abstract pattern. It’s masculine, she said.

—Why? Does it have a penis?

—It might but what I mean is the colors and pattern.

—It seems to me, he said, that a postpubertal man’s bed would try to be appealing to women. Of course it might be a homosexual bed.

Rosalie approached the bed saying You know, women don’t have to be lured into sex. The pleasure is or isn’t, but it can’t be a hoax. It’s really there, or really not. You can approach it without worry.

In the long lamplight her shadow fell across the bedspread and became part of the pattern.

—This was slept in by someone, oh, seventeen, maybe older, she told Sanford.

—Jerry, grown up.

And now, she said, he’s long gone, somewhere. She bent and ran a hand across the bedspread, very lightly, barely touching. She encountered no interruptions. No ridges, no hills, no signs of untidy activity down beneath, not even the plow furrows of a fertile field. The bed had been made, expertly and neatly.

She said softly, I think we were expected.

Sanford didn’t answer and was no longer near but a few steps across the room where there was a chest of drawers and a number of wooden shelves affixed to the wall, and a wide desk which had been dragged in on edge and didn’t fit the decor, with a lamp on it and a swivel desk chair in front of it, turned vacantly toward the bed.

—This, he said now This is a sign of occupancy.

For there were sheets of paper on the desk.

She came near and flicked a finger in the direction of the switch on the desk lamp. Try it, she said.

He pushed the protrusion to no effect, then twisted it and it clicked. But there was nothing.

She asked if it were plugged in and he leaned against the wall and craned a look down behind the desk.

—Oh, yes, it is. Rosalie, there couldn’t be live power down here. Who would pay for it? You’d see it on your bill.

But the neighbors could be paying for it, she noted. When I excused the Zembergs, I didn’t know about this, all this. They could just as well be connected as anyone.

—What motive?

C’mon, who are you, who am I, to ask about motive? she said. This is all too big to be explained in capsule form. What understandable motive could there possibly be to build and furnish an entire house underneath the ground?

—And under another house.

—What’s there to grasp in something like that? she half laughed. The motive would have to be...randomness.

—Nice thought, randomness as a motive.

I don’t feel as brave now, she replied, and as a matter of fact I feel a little morose looking at this room. Move the light, I want to read these papers.

 

48

 

Sanford set the flashlamp on one of the shelves and angled it.

There were five pieces of paper, neatly stacked, one ruled with lines.

The top one was an undated advertisement for lawn services, cheaply copied and once crammed into a screen door.

The second was a list of titles and names—a book list, handwritten. This was the one with the ruled lines.

The third was all words and paragraphs, continued on the fourth.

The fifth was covered with a half-dozen ads for used cars for private sale, tiny strips of newsprint raggedly torn, curling under slashes of tape.

Sanford asked What do you see, Roz?

—I’m looking.

After she looked she lowered her fist to the desk top with the sheets still bunched in her hand.

Sanford asked What’s wrong?

—I feel funny about all this. I guess I’m getting nervous now. The classified ads don’t look yellowed to me, don’t crumble away. They’re new. I really feel that, Sanford. And

—What?

the printed pages. It’s like a report, high school, college, I dunno.

—About what?

I didn’t read it, literature, something influencing an author. It’s a class assignment, ends in the middle of the page, page two.

—It’s finished?

—No. No, I’m sure it isn’t. It was interrupted.

But, he said, printed out anyway and placed neatly. Or Roz, was it typed? Like on a typewriter? They used typewriters, those clacketty things, thirty years ago.

This isn’t thirty years ago, she said. And she said No, it has a date on it, and it’s yesterday.

 

49

 

Sanford took the sheet and looked and then nodded. Yeah, he said, that’s what it says.

Rosalie said We should leave please Sanford.

He chided her with a smile: Is that polite? When we were expected? Shouldn’t we first meet our hosts before we flee them?

—Don’t be funny. Why is someone doing this?

Then in the silence Rosalie found her eyes upon Sanford Kinz.

—Sanford, are you doing this?

—What do you mean?

She nodded and said in steady and quiet rhythm, Yes, you really could have done this. You went over here before we turned the light this way.

He nodded, mere understanding, not agreement. —If you’re serious, if that’s a serious thought in your head, tell me how I could’ve pulled it. You saw I wasn’t carrying any papers with me.

—Under your shirt. Your shirt...I wondered why you were wearing a bulky shirt today.

—It’s a little brisk outside. So, did you hear me crackle?

—You could have been careful.

—Uh huh.

She backed up a ways, almost to the bed as if such a thing could protect her, and then she said, No no, it could be simpler. You came down here, you brought a rope and climbed down here, and put these things in place for me to find. By yourself.

—Snuck through your house.

She continued, The magazines, you could have planted them too. Everything planted.

—Uh huh, and I did it when, yesterday, last night, dawn’s early light. Uh huh.

Don’t be...don’t act like you think I’m hydrocephalic, Sanford. I know you don’t think that. I don’t want to be played with. You bring a few old magazines, one a few months old, and you bring these papers, and put them here and put them there. Down we go, you knew I’d go down into this house, and you show me this and show me that...You led me to this bedroom.

—And made the bed.

In fact, she said, in fact Sanford you sort’ve disappeared for a few minutes when you went down first. What were you doing?

—Well. It was carpentry and construction work, basically, Rosalie, because I had to build this underground house right under the underground attic that you yourself had already discovered on your own and informed me about and called me over to see, and I had to lug in the furniture and put down carpeting and, what else? Oh, the bathroom fixtures. Concealing the toilet under my shirt, my too thick shirt, was murder, and I had to walk carefully because the water made a sloshing sound.

—Sanford! God damn it. But she was laughing, and then he was too.

And of course, he said, we could take the plunge and try to deal with the question of motive after all.

—I’m sorry.

—Oh?

—It’s all, this is too

just

this is all just too

weird.

Sanford nodded and said it would make a good story, the beginnings of one.

Rosalie said, I guess that’s what led me to my thinking. You’re an author, you’re a Creator.

—Yes, I’m an author, and thank you.

—It’s in you to make things up.

—Wanna know something Rosalie my dear? It’s writers who make things up. What authors do is find things.

—And write about them.

—No. The things write, the things found write about themselves, using human fingers. The finding’s first. That’s all we do. Just look around and donate our fingers.

 

50

 

Sanford asked if Rosalie accepted his innocence and she smiled and said Provisionally.

—Then you think still, I might be involved.

Let’s not dwell, she said.

 

51

 

She brushed past him without dread or caution and turned the light upon the wall shelves. There were CDs and DVDs and what were surely paperweights, and garden bricks working as bookends. But having bookends struck her as pretentious, for there were only a few books. She read the spines aloud.

Modern Market Theory

The Wind in the Willows

When Cars Had Fins

You’re Really Something Charlie Brown

Life on Top of A Football

Change Your Grip, Change Your Life

Theology and Truth

and she reached out with a compulsive motion and tipped a book out into her grasp and opened it.

—Does it say? asked Sanford.

—No, she said, no name, nothing written. I used to write my name in all my books. No, and it feels stiff. It may not have ever been opened.

—I have books like that. Cracking them open makes the spine all spiderwebby, and they’re mainly for looks.

—Oh? she said as she put it back. Oh? it seems like a violation of something, buying a book and not even opening it.

Sanford looked shrewd and said It’s usually more violating to crack something open, not leave it alone.

Rosalie thumbed through the other books but there were no clues. Unless one cared to run thumbprints, for a few, much read, had them faintly in the margins, in food or sweat.

If this is a hoax, said Sanford, it’s pretty elaborate.

—But stories are that way. Elaborate hoaxes, detailed to coax you into a false reality.

—How would you know, sweet innocent? you don’t write, you illustrate.

Rosalie smiled at him as if it were a compliment and said And of course illustrations can’t ever lie.

—If they do they’re not illustrations, he retorted. They’re art.

 

52

 

Rosalie felt funny, a funniness slowly expanding, but felt drawn to continue into the buried house, the unoccupied house that yet seemed to be lived in.

Sanford stood by the closed closet door and asked if he should slide it open. —Clothes tell the tale. Or underwear. We could examine or even actually sniff

But she cut him off and motioned him to her side.

—What if we run into them? she murmured.

—What if? What if we already have?

She looked at him and he shrugged. She said, I’ve apologized.

—Yeah but what I mean is, he said back, what I mean is this may be a haunted house, don’t you think, Roz? and thus by that token the occupants are invisible and untouchable. We might very well be walking right through them just as up there up above people might be walking right on top of us.

—No, we’re still under the house, just the house, maybe a little of the lawn, that’s all.

He nodded and asked if she wanted to go back now.

No, she replied, it’s not too bad, not so bad being afraid. It’d be worse to lie up there and think of all this and wonder and feel like I’m waiting.

While you’re lying, Roz, you might be comforted.

—Won’t I get comfort no matter how long we stay down here?

Now that, he said, is hardly much of a question.

 

53

 

Thus somewhat anesthetized, as she conceded inwardly, they whushed out of the bedroom on the utilitarian carpet and went along down the hallway. There was a little hall half-bath. Rosalie pushed down on the little toilet handle, a very compact thing of the modern sort which only moved slightly and made little sound, unlike what she had grown up with, and the bowl whirled sweetly and discreetly flushed. There were some stains on the side and also, as Sanford pointed out, a few curly hairs.

—So there’s a water hookup, she said.

—Someone somewhere pays for the water.

—Someone.

She flicked the switch, silent, by the door and nothing happened. Well, she said No power here either.

Sanford said after a moment Let me tell you something, let me note that there could be a master switch, a master circuit breaker, and these inhabitants could easily kill all the electricity when they leave for any extended interval, Roz, which would be pretty smart.

—I suppose.

—But still, someone would have to pay.

I know, she said, someone has to pay, someone always has to pay the bill. But sometimes others pay it without knowing, without choice, because they don’t know. They’ve been tricked.

Sanford said, it could be the Zembergs.

Or any other house, she said, because it’s really not who’s connected to what, not physically, but what’s believed in the office, what’s on the screen. Whatever the computer says, that’s the fact, the fact of things. And who knows, she went on, what facts are out there being manufactured right now? A person has no way to know, really, no way to check things out and go over, line by line, the false facts of your life.

My, he said, that’s good.

I was just thinking, she said, just a thought.

Well, Roz, let me say as a user of words that it must be wonderful to have thoughts. I envy you.

 

54

 

There was a Master Bedroom too, with a doublewide pink bed also made and inert. And this time there was a framed photo on the dresser of a middle-aged man and woman standing in front of a rosebush.

It’s not them, Rosalie said.

—No?

—The way they look...don’t you think it has a feeling of years ago? I think it’s the parents of one of the people who slept in that bed. Usually the wife’s. It was taken when she was a young girl moving out, moving on. But she carried this with her.

Sanford picked up the frame and looked at the reverse side, then showed it to her. It said in faint pencil Next to garage.

Yes, Rosalie said, because of course you don’t need to write down the names of your parents.

—And so someone really does live here. It’s a residence. You know why? because if they moved out she’d take this picture with her.

—But she may have left the premises without moving out, Rosalie said. She may be gone. But—

and Rosalie gestured around, at the rest of the house, hoping she wasn’t gesturing at anything in particular yet not hoping too deeply, because the notion was fascinating, to meet the termini of life during an exploration.

 

55

 

The hallway opened, around the corner, into the living room; that is, the continuous cathedral of space that poured from living room to family room to dining room to countered and sinked and refirgeratored kitchen, with tile.

Sanford looked at her and asked if she were all right.

I, I don’t know..., she said but she smiled briefly.

—It’s just more furniture, he said, more furniture without dust.

But there...

there’s a picture window, she nodded in a pointing way.

There was also, in the same wall, at the end, a shallow alcove. In the wall of the alcove was the front door.

The blinds, vertical blinds, were pulled shut and opaque across the big window. As a matter of fact, she thought, how do we really know that behind that rectangle of slats is anything but a blank wall?

Sanford approached the edge of the blinds confidently and reached for the pull-chain just out of sight behind them, but Rosalie said in haste

—No! please.

—You don’t want to see?

She shook her head and gestured him back to her side, saying Let’s try the power in here. So she went to a floorlamp next to a reading chair and performed the experiment and received no result, only the muteness of inactivity from the bulb.

—How about some real boldness? he said to her, for there was a television set, a largish Sony, rather new, near them across from the sofa.

Rosalie came close to laughter but now it was jumpy. —If there’s no power, you’re not gonna get TV. And we’re underground.

—Ever hear of cable? and he pressed the little almost invisible stud. It made a chooonk sound.

A tiny red light came on. Get that, Roz, he said, and she said nothing. He said: all power to the people’s art.

And also, as light swam into view on the screen—Well at least they’ve taken care of the necessities. Better to light one TV than to curse the darkness.

Rosalie stared at the brightening rectangle and said, I don’t understand.

—Roz, my sweetest, they flipped off the main power for the house but excluded and thus retained a few circuits. For entertainment. Or just overlooked.

She moved closer and engaged the image with wonder. It was a commercial that she’d seen often for something in capsule form that allowed husbands and wives to play golf together, a gentle game of golf without rancor, amid green fields and flowers and trees that stirred with breeze in front of a strangely blue and opaque sky. Without the sneezing and angry wincing that had once threatened their love.

There was sound, too, and white words in long straight streamers across the lower green, which was precisely how she remembered, precisely familiar, precisely so much expected as to be dismissible. And yet, and yet, she was deeply into a frown, because this

wasn’t right at all.

Sanford, she said.

What was wrong was that the words were not words, not visibly, not vocally. That is, they were not what one expects of words. They were failed words. They were fallen-short and sinning words, black sheep words, anti-ant grasshopper words. They looked just like words and sounded just like words. But they conveyed no meaning. They held nothing.

Sanford, she said again What the hell is this?

—I don’t know, Roz, what the hell is this? In fact, as a matter of fact, the fuck.

They knelt before the screen as if obeissance might draw mercy. But there was no mercy and nothing was drawn. There were little things, things that slid neatly and changed and appeared and disappeared, that surely looked like letters in English, clumped together dividing space like words in a sentence. But the little lines and curves, the parts that poked up or swerved down, were not real letters at all. They were dummy somethings, bait that drew the eye with no further purpose in mind.

—Sanford...You can’t read it can you?

—It’s just, just decoration. Just a pattern that looks like a sentence from a ways away.

—We’re not a ways away now and even close up, Sanford, it still is letters and words, and I can tell it’s in English and it even seems familiar, you know? but it lacks one thing. You know? If you point at a letter and ask me what letter of the alphabet it is, no, I don’t know its name. These are all letters and even though I recognize them, I can’t come up with which letters they are.

He said, it’s the same with the words. It’s the same with the sentences.

—They don’t mean anything.

But he looked at her now and shook his head. —No, that’s not quite it. Relax, look at them. Pretend you’re approaching them casually. Don’t be afraid, don’t panic. Just Look. Don’t you see that really, really they do have meaning, the usual meanings that words and sentences have? Not just because we happen to remember this idiot’s commercial. I can feel meaning in them. I guess you could say that they still advertise their meaningfulness and even

the fact that they’re just ordinary words in the language we speak.

That’s not the issue. It’s that being so, being just that, isn’t enough. It’s all a thousand steps to the end of the line, but then halting before the very last step, when all these preliminaries come together as a saying of something.

She said, they do absolutely everything except speak their minds. How can that work? How could it happen? It’s as if a person learned to see, to see perfectly well and know what’s there—but that person, seeing, never learned to read, not even a single letter.

And, as he pointed out without necessity, it was the same with the vocalizations from the speaker. The music was all right. The crunch on the pure grass, the whish of the golf clubs, those too were all right. But what was said, in human voice, with all the comforting rhythms and pauses and inflections of the language, all the reassurances, all the normality, all the carelessness and dullness and unimportant anticipations

said nothing.

—Arguably, smiled Sanford as he stood and helped Rosalie up, these are not words at all. Words have to say something, don’t they. Whatever these are, they don’t mean a thing to us. So they’re not words.

Not to us, she completed, and convulsively switched off the TV.

 

56

 

—What has happened to us?

 

57

 

And he looked back at her and said with the condecension of calm that a man is required to feign unfelt, Nothing has.

—We can’t...

—It’s not us Roz we haven’t undergone any change by climbing down a rope.

Something arose, arose and she spoke of it as if she knew much about it. —I read about, there was a book and on TV too, brain damage where the person can’t recognize ordinary things, I mean can’t exactly say what they are, yet still knows their nature, do you see? Like, knowing this is a human being; but he doesn’t know her name or that she’s his wife, or even what a wife is. Not just the definition of the word—what it is.

—The concept.

—Yes.

—But this isn’t the same...

—No, but it’s in the same category, brain damage. You see some of what a thing is, but not all of it, not the rest. You see a car down the street, and then it’s closer, and then it’s closer, and you never take your eyes off it, but still you don’t see it as moving. See? Because moving isn’t just where things are from moment to moment, but what connects them. I mean, oh, she said, when I draw, when I illustrate, a man waves his arm and you could give him a hundred arms but still there’s no movement. There are parts of things that you can’t see...

Which are not present on this underground Sony television set, he nodded. Okay but

I know, she said. We’ve read things, the books, the papers

—the back of that picture.

I know, she said, so what do we have?

—What we have, Roz, is mysterious and unprecedented and to be explored by boggling eyes like everything else.

 

58

 

And he continued What it seems, what the new rules are, is that anything from above, from out and up there, is disconnected

Not the water, she interrupted.

—I’m taking about meanings, hunh, words. Words from elsewhere don’t mean in here. They don’t Mean. But what lives here does.

—And how can that possibly be?

—Come on.

And during this commentary he was already across the room and grasped the chain behind the blinds and yanked it. The slats turned open like palms revealing.

It was a big rectangle of glass. The flashlamp was reflected in a small sun, repeated on the wall where it reflected back.

What was beyond the glass was the most uninteresting thing that could be, yet never seen ever anywhere on the other side of picture windows. It was dirt. Dirt from top to bottom. A little variation in color, as the light revealed scaning up and down. But still just black brown muddy dirt, probably a little moist, solid, unbroken except here and there by a few pebbles. And that’s it, Rosalie.

He put his hand on the glass and a shadow outlined it and fell through to the dirt, and she approached and did the same.

—Cold, she said.

—Yup. The earth doesn’t really heat up until you go down a bit further, they say.

Sanford knuckled the glass, and the knocks were dulled almost to nonexistence by what pressed back from behind. It’s not a stage set, he stated, this is real and hard and heavy.

—But this far down...wouldn’t the glass just give way? the pressure

—Oh it wouldn’t be all that much, necessarily. People dig into the sides of hills, even mountains, dig out a living room or a garage, right? They don’t need a, a hyperbaric chamber, no that’s not what I mean, they don’t need walls like a bank vault, and that’s a lot more under the earth than this.

She said she guessed so. But still, it was only a plate of picture window glass. And then beyond some great overspreading oppressiveness.

Please close the blinds, she said.

 

59

 

Rosalie forced herself to turn open the brass deadbolt and pull open the front door. It opened easily. There was a little square cement slab, the porch, and wood columns going up at the outer corners to a roof overhead, and in the openness within each of these tall frames was more dirt, three cliffsides of dirt cupping them in, more or less flat.

A little dirt, not much, had crumbled onto the porch.

They keep it swept, Sanford observed.

She was looking down. There was a porch mat on the slab made of rough stuff.

They wipe their feet, she said. Look. Is that just the most idiotic thing, how can you, why would you

—It’s just some dirt on it, he said. I don’t see any shoes on any feet wiping. Do you?

—Don’t. Common sense

—Roz, we’re underground in a secret house with a brain-damaged TV and you want to talk about common sense, which strikes me as irrelevant.

And so they shut the door and deadbolted it as if it had never been opened.

 

60

 

She led him to the kitchen but as he passed the big flat table with six neat chairs in attendance he said Now you see there’s some open space waiting to be filled, to be covered and laid and layed upon by your back with clothes bunched up and down in a natural way.

—And crease my skin, sure.

—It seems to me it might be worth the doing.

—What happened to the comfort of upstairs?

—It’s still there awaiting but don’t you see, here we are in unexplored territory, right here facing it, and that cracks open all the caked dry mud of years on our skins and allows the abnormal.

She smiled and said All bets are off.

He said back Don’t you feel it Roz?

Just keep it in the bag, please, and let’s look at the kitchen.

For she reasoned of course that a kitchen was where life is, where life began in a family, each day, even here where there was no sunrise and no day that could be called a day.

 

61

 

It had the usual counters and stove and sink, grease on the rangetop and on the refrigerator door were magnets holding little torn ads or handscrawled reminders of cryptic necessities. One said R M N D    C L E O    -    R H R S E    10    and so it seemed that Cleo had a rehearsal.

And a little flip calendar was affixed magnetically with marking pen attached, and it was flipped to this month of this year. But nothing was written on that page or any other.

—I wonder what someone could rehearse down here, Rosalie said and didn’t try to conceal that it was nervous talk, not a question.

—They don’t rehearse down here.

—They, someone, come and go. God God every day they come and go. Not through that front door. Through my house and down through my basement, Sanford.

—Mm, and without your permission, in writing. Your property rights just lay there raped and who takes responsibility for that fact? that’s where to go, Roz, with this thing: the responsibility.

She touched the calendar and said We have to hurry, we should just run, but I can’t.

When I was a kid, he said expansively, a jungle of puberty, in high school, my buds and I went to a concert, cause we weren’t too masculine and liked classical, put on by some local high schools, our own but also our rivals. So here were the empty buses parked, we came on them, and one had in the windows some big letters on cardboard that spelled out MAGNOLIA. So we three snuck on board and changed the order to MONGALIA. We were real brave guys but, man, my heart was thudding and I could imagine some big husky cellists rounding the corner and trapping us and going after our shit with their fists. And at that time I wanted to live, because pubertic people do. But wiser heads would have run.

—And you did live.

—And everything that comes with it, so don’t be too quick to run.

 

61

 

All this was by the light of the flashlamp. The overheads didn’t work. But when Rosalie yanked open the fridge door it was full of cold light and in that light were covered dishes and cubes of margarine and milk, and celery and lettuce in the crisper, and in the freezer were several frozen dinners named Light Touch and Big Bellyfull and Company’s Coming. Rosalie pulled one out, and all the words, down to the microscopic, could be read and were entirely ordinary.

So, these dinners come from above, Sanford said, and yet these things we can read. It’s just the TV, then. No... it’s just our viewing of the TV. Everything’s right there on the screen and out of the box as it should be, except us. We’re not there.

I don’t know, she said holding the dinner box in front of her eyes. She continued:—This. It’s so typical, you know? and that’s kind of eerie, all this ordinariness in the most ridiculous situation of a modern furnished house buried under another one.

—You have to wonder How the hell did they get the sofa down here? It must come apart.

She closed the door and said And I see the clock works.

It was the bluewhite readout on the microwave, a GE.

Sanford looked at his wristwatch. —Correct, just two minutes off. You know, sweet-eyed one, I shouldn’t wear this watch down here.

—Why?

—Think now, it might get snagged on the rope ladder and then if I fall it’d turn me inside out. Have you considered that aspect of things?

No I really haven’t Sanford, she replied with a certain tone.

—But you’d care wouldn’t you Roz, you wouldn’t just take me, looking like a mushed banana of blood and stringy things, and wrap me up and hide me away somewhere. You’d show more retrospective kindness to me, and my work, wouldn’t you? The inside-out former man and author?

You’re about as much an author as I am a corporation for public art, she smiled.

—We live by delusion, don’t forget, and don’t undelusion me, and likewise back at you.

She began to walk but stopped, because she saw it in the circle of light as it swept passed, on the wall by the end of the counter.

 

62

 

A telephone

 

63

 

a yellow telephone, was hung on the wall, drooping down a yellow cord like the long tubular curls of prim Victorian maidens. Old fashioned, Sanford observed. At least it isn’t a rotary dial, those crotchety things.

He picked up the receiver and she flinched and then again, for she could hear the dial tone. He seemed to weigh the receiver in his hand, its heft, as if suspicious of its reality. Yep yup, a kitchen phone, he said, a mother’s phone.

She said softly: a housewife’s phone. Do you suppose it really works?

—You hear the dial tone, don’t you, hm.

—But who could you reach?

—Anyone, Roz. Everyone. It’s not a dedicated line. Call somebody.

I don’t have any numbers on me, she said uncertainly and with a degree of offputtedness.

—None memorized?

—We should get going, Sanford, before

—Stop, just try it, didn’t my story inspire you, with its moral? Thrill somebody with a call from impossibility to everydayhood.

He thrust the receiver into her hand and she stared at it and at him, perplexed, and then punched out a number.

Ringing. A click, and she felt afraid. It said “Hello?”

Mom! she said.

“Hello?”

Is that you, Mom?

“It’s always been, Zallie-Zillie.”

Can you hear me okay, Mom? she asked.

“For what there is of it, Z’s.”

—I, I wondered, so, how are you?

“Why didn’t you know all along?”

 

I...

 

“Your father’s here.”

“I’m on the other line, Rosie, I picked up.”

Hi Dad!

“I hate these little portable things. The numbers, the buttons, how am I supposed to see and feel at this damn age of mind?”

“He doesn’t like to use it, Rosalie.”

—I just thought I’d

call you, both of you, from, well

it’s kind of a special situation

“Your father and I have intimacy in a new way, sweetheart.”

“The doctor recommended it.”

—Well, I’m down here

“You never have to be.”

Wh,

what?

Mom?

“We’re here. Haven’t you always known that?”

—I don’t know just what you mean by...that.

“Aw your Mom’s been reading those books again, all that crap about self-esteem and psychology. Emotions! She doesn’t need all that, Mira.”

“It’s worth saying. I just want you to know that when you’re feeling disconnected, Zallie-Zillie, we’re here and you can lift the receiver and connect to familiar voices that you once knew for such a while.”

Sanford, listening, covered his mouth but Rosalie didn’t feel herself amused. —I’m not that way, not emotionally, I’m fine. I mean I’m down physically, not medically but in terms of where I am. I’m underground. That’s where I am now. I’m calling you from under the ground.

“She says she’s calling us. Jim!”

“I can hear. Ohhp!”

There was a flutter of unorganized sound like a waterfall of Tinkertoys.

“Your dad always drops it, Z’s. Honestly! Jim.”

Rosalie and Sanford could hear muttering and grunts somewhere in the background.

“Jim, you kicked it right under the couch. He’s in the den, Rosalie, I can see him through the door. Jim! Right there, I can see it. No, there. There!”

—Mom, is he okay?

“We just began.”

 

Mom...

 

I, this

place I’m in, I

 

“Sweetheart, calling your parents should be precious. Don’t just call when you have life problems. We have another little girl, you know, oh and your brother is having some problems now. It’s love but also finance. I don’t imagine you know that. If you want to be in a better place, Z’s, just be. Now it’s pretty much beyond the place where your Mom and Dad can rebuild your life. But, how’s that job?”

I don’t think you’re really paying

“Okay, back on. What are you girls gabbing about?”

—Dad, Mom doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say.

“Doesn’t the job fill you anymore?”

—It’s okay, I mean, don’t you remember I’m gone from there, from Trust? I told you.

“If I’m not understanding then you can just tell me what you’re trying to say, Z’s. I think you can do that.”

“She’s taking about leaving her job, Mira.”

“No.”

—There’s something else I need to talk about

“No. Go back to it.”

—I can’t! Mom, I quit. It was unpleasant.

“You don’t seem to see that I want you to go back to talking about the subject of your job, sweetheart. Didn’t you yourself raise it up? Why avoid it?”

“I’m gonna drop this damn phone again.”

—This is nothing about that job at Trust. Listen

 

please just

won’t you

, I’m in a house now, right now, I found this whole house under the basement. There was a trap door and a connecting shaft, to a big room underground that was made up to look like the attic of a house

“Like our attic?”

—No, just...an attic. But you go down from there and there’s an entire house underneath. It’s furnished with, with food and I think someone’s living there, here, a whole family. See?

“Do you mean a family of homeless people, Zallie-Zillie?”

Rosalie laughed and said bitterly Well the point is they have a home.

“Don’t judge. You don’t know what condition people are in. They have a right to their discomforts. Don’t judge. Any of us could lose out suddenly. What do they do to you?”

“Just who owns this empty house? Can’t you complain?”

—Dad I don’t think...I went to the library...

“I don’t know what this thing is you have with libraries, little lady. Did some book scare you? Go right in! Ask for assistance! They’re paid to be understanding.”

—I did but I still don’t know, I can’t figure out who really owns this house or why it was built.

“What do you mean? ‘Why’? What does that imply? That word.”

—Mom, it’s unidentified, I don’t know who to go to. My friend, he’s actually right here with me, he thinks I should pursue some, you know, legal options.”

“What’s his name?”

—Sanford.

“Well you tell this man he’s a smart man, and if he’s right there overhearing, sir, I’m telling you that myself. It’s good advice.”

—Okay Dad, he’s nodding, but...that lawyer you used...

“Did we ever resort to the law?”

“Mira, it was back when, remember down at the bank.”

“That really wasn’t so dire.”

—You said he was good, you liked him.

“I don’t remember, wasn’t it, no, it was, wasn’t it with a T H like...I think it was Throckman. Throckmorton! Yeah, but Rosalie, he died. Didn’t you read about it?”

“He left children behind, Rosalie.”

“You think you know a person. Not to say I knew him, of course, he was just a lawyer performing services. But you know, I thought, here’s a friendly fellow, he’s going all directions, moving along nicely, and then you just can’t manage anymore.”

—Then...he’s dead?

“I don’t know why I even bother picking up this damn thing.”

“Z’s, if there’s an empty house on your property it could be a firetrap.”

—Yes. I

“Please don’t try to blame homeless people for absolutely everything. Fires could be just the wiring.”

“Was there a fire?”

 

No.

 

Mom, Dad.

 

“Rosie your Mom and I are exploring new intimacies.”

“After so many years.”

“The doctor recommended it as safe. He said it had been thoroughly tested, he himself tested it at length, god damn this thing! and we can do it, we do it through the rip in an old raincoat.”

—Dad, ...

“Oh he’s just being silly. Jim! she’ll believe that, that raincoat. Goodness it’s much simpler.”

—I just felt like calling and thought of that attorney but if he’s dead

“What do you mean by saying ‘if’? Why would anyone doubt it?”

“This boyfriend of yours, Stan, still there? he’ll appreciate the method, and you can continue on into your older years.”

—Are you, are you both

 

all right?

 

I don’t think you’re getting what I’m

“Giving? At this point in your life what are you giving, Z’s?”

—There’s a house!

here!

underground!

“All this talk makes me want to practice.”

“Call again some time, Rosalie, when you feel like it. We’re not something you’ve gotten past. He’s dropped the phone. He’s started perspiring. Your father does perspire more. Oh bye. Bye.”

She hung up the phone with her head bowed. Sanford was bustling with merriment and said Are they always that way?

No, she said.

—Were they really your parents?

I don’t know, she replied and there was a tickle. A tickle of teardrops probing down her face and onto the tiled floor.

 

64

 

Sanford, I don’t want this any more, not now today.

 

65

 

But we haven’t reached the edge, Roz, he said We need to explore the territory right to the end because, for example, there might be a garage, a house like this has to have a garage. It’s simple, they just drive down a ramp or through a little tunnel from I suppose one street over, or someone else’s garage, a neighbor’s, and that’s how they come and go. We have to know. You have to know.

—I don’t think I’m able to know more of anything right now. My tank is all full up.

—Oh. Is it?

He shone the light around and said There it is Rrrrrroz, there’s the door and on the other side is a garage, probably two-car. Oh, what’s that your mom calls you? Zeez?

—Zallie-Zillie, two Z’s. Zallie from Rosalie. I used to die.

—Come on.

She followed him without hope. He untwisted a deadbolt and opened the door.

It was a garage, so painfully just a garage, the two-by-fours and tarpaper all exposed to the eye on all sides and above. The floor was a concrete slab streaked with oil and tiremarks worth two cars. There were shelves on the walls and hanging tools and boxes and old things.

There was a garage door, old style. Sanford tried to swing it up but it only shuddered and rattled. Of course, he said, it has a padlock on the other side. They lock it as they leave.

There was a fluorescent tube above which would not light.

On one shelf was a radio, silver sides grimy. Sanford studied it a moment then pushed a button. Music came out into the air. Rosalie recognized the song: it was everywhere these weeks. The words sounded like words. But she had never had much luck making out words from broadcast songs, whatever it was trying to tell her was as obscure as ever.

—Must have a good antenna connection up above, he said. Then he checked the back and shook his head Nope. I dunno, he said. Roz, how sure are we that we’re underground?

Stop it, she snapped back at him.

She took the flashlamp out of his hand and swung it around here and there.

In the wall, low down, bottom edge to the concrete, was a small square panel.

It had hinges and a handle.

 

66

 

—Sanford. Please.

But he had already grasped the handle.

 

67

 

The shaft was about the size of a very small closet and had rungs going down the further side of it, down into something that they would have to lean over to see.

They stood and looked, and were helpless and sharing that fact.

Rosalie, he said to her and then for a space there was no more to say. —This, it, you know I’m beginning to wonder

She said facing down but to him: I’m afraid of this whole thing, this whole pathological deal.

—Yeah.

—It just goes on, doesn’t it.

—Maybe.

—How could it, Sanford, how could it?

Yeah, Roz, he said It sounds like you’re saying How Could You to a lover. How could you? you brute! I aspire to hope that you don’t think of me in that sort of light, my mine, sweet little mine.

—How could there be more of this?

—Aw, well, the image is stairsteps, on a staircase, a real long one, like a corkscrew, going down and down, winding down and down into the earth. One step after another but in this case the step is a house. Each step is a house, furnished I’d suppose. Like that.

—This isn’t your damn authorship now.

Ah now, dearest former employee of Trust, where is the line of demarcation you seek after? he asked her.

—What do

—Authorhood, haven’t I said, memorably, that it’s a matter of finding, not creating, not fixing up, not tricking out? Don’t presume my bloviations aren’t gravely intended. Attend, attend, listen to the man, you artist, listen.

—Stop it. I can’t go on further

—Don’t we have to?

—I’d rather you not turn every fucking thing into a sexual innuendo. My mind isn’t there right now.

—I know. Always I do. I’m just

trying to lighten things.

Maybe I’m scared alongside you

scared out of my tits.

—Shut the door. I’m going back up.

Well, mm hmm, he said as he shut it, if what we have is a suburban block or modern housing tract set vertically and lunging right down through the ceiling of Hell, we’ll need ropes and climbing gear and supplies to do justice to the safari.

—Up.

—Hey, what’s up, Roz?

She yanked him quickly back out of the garage because she thought, later reconsidering, that she heard the padlock rattle on the other side of the big car door.

 

68

 

She found it surprisingly easy to pass back through the ground house, the halls, up the ladder, the attic; to end up in her own basement with its single bulb still smiling austerely upon them from across space. Sanford dropped the trap door, the wooden lid, into place, thummk.

As he looked at it he said to her You know Roz those cans give off fumes constantly and it seems to me it’s not so safe for you.

—After all this time nothing’s going to happen very quickly.

—We could wrap it tighter and pull it up the steps and get rid of it.

—It’d be a job.

—You’ve seen the convexity of my muscles, and then there’s you as well.

—Yeah me.

—Build, build, let your legs become my arms.

—Just

—I feel a bug. We can drag it to the bottom of the steps at least.

—No. Tomorrow. Some other time. I can’t think right now.

Sanford urged her rather earnestly to put locks on the mop closet door and the trap door plank and she listened frowning and nodded, but they both knew very well that she would do nothing for a while.

He was gone at some point and she now found that her sketching came more easily, as if the sketches were sketching themselves. Sanford had said something like that.


 

LAW

 

1

 

After some days and some reading but no contact with anyone she decided to consult an attorney. She found him online. His website was well-designed, it seemed to the eye of a trained illustrator, and that was reason enough to think him honest and competent and in this case somewhat imaginative.

Rosalie went to the office of George Jacob Phillips. It was entirely contemporary but unsettlingly small. There was a little waiting room but no desk, no receptionist, just an open door in which appeared unnervingly soon a dark man.

She sat down in the next room and faced him across his desk, clear of papers and well-polished which was not a good sign. He mentioned something about weather and traffic and his dog.

He then said with a warm and inviting smile, “Ms. Benson, Rosalie, and please do call me George, I’ve read over your email with some attention. It’s very well composed and informative.”

“Thanks.”

“All this is clearly very important.”

“It bothers me.”

“Well, it has to. You’re consulting an attorney. I haven’t run across this kind of question before. That makes it fun for me—not that it’s fun for you.”

“I can’t quite find out how to approach this whole thing.”

“Why yes,” he said, “and that’s the exact word, approach. How to approach. Now...” He smiled more broadly and leaned forward in the direction of her folded hands, in her lap. “Now what we need to do first, our initial consultation—and we discussed the fee on the telephone—is the narrowing: things down.”

“All right,” she said.

“All right then. I wonder if you could speak to this issue, Rosalie. I wonder if you could tell me a bit more of what you’re looking for, here in a legal setting. That is to say, what can an attorney do for you? In terms of your present situation?”

She unfolded her hands. “Well. Hmm? People keep telling me I need to consult an attorney.”

“For what reason, exactly?”

“You don’t see, from my description, some...issue?”

“Well of course,” said George Jacob Phillips with great sunshine. “This is just our narrowing, to get some exactitude. That’s what I mean by approach. What will be our approach?”

“Mr. Phillips. Well...I’m sorry. I’m here to make a beginning to all this. I don’t know where I am with it. You read what I said, it’s all there, it happened, that’s it. There’s a house—”

“Construction materials under your property and, I recall, adjacent to your basement. Now could it be adjunct?”

“I don’t know if that might be proper legal terminology, but I wouldn’t put it that way.”

“Let’s speak in a common language,” he said, “a language common to both of us. I suppose you’ve noticed that I’m not of American birth. I was born in Sri Lanka. The name I use here is not the name I was given. I use an American name to put prospective clients at ease. I want them to anticipate my fluency in English. And Rosalie, I don’t want to speak Legalese to you. Tell me in a very simple way what this is all about, for you.” He raised his eyebrows and withdrew, leaned back a bit, receptively, wide.

She said after a thought, “I was in my basement and found a point of access into a, a room further down underneath. Under my house, under my basement.”

“Within your property.”

“Yes. Within. In fact, it’s actually enclosed by it.”

“You weren’t told of this subsurface structure upon purchase?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“All right. And yes, you did detail this in your email, and very well. Now then, are you considering that you might have a cause of action against the seller, or sellers, of this property?”

“Do you think I might?”

“Surely you might,” he said. “There are questions of undisclosed assets and impediments, obstructions, incurred liability to you regarding, for example, cracking of the public sidewalk. Things collapse, don’t they? And there are general issues of impairment of contract and transfer of title in good faith in a clear and straightforward manner. Or have I lost you?”

“No. I follow you.”

“Do you? Now what we need to get out in the open, even before we commence scrutiny of the actual documents, is the actual and substantive effect of this upon you, you yourself. Are you a regular and more or less continuous occupant of this house?”

“The one aboveground?”

“Do you own multiple residences?”

She found that funny. “I guess maybe I might. I guess that’s what I need you to tell me.”

He nodded, but there was a diminution of smile. “I...There’s some significance to that question.”

“I’d think so.”

“This is residential property?”

“I asume that’s how it’s zoned. It’s a housing tract. It was built in the 70’s and they called it Elmview Glade. My particular model was called Montego Heights.”

“Those are sure evocative names, aren’t they?”

“I’m sure it helped them sell.”

“Do all these tract homes have basements?”

“I think so.”

“And do they all come with this extra space at a lower level? This room?”

“Look...and I don’t mean to sound annoyed, I don’t come with an axe...but did you read what I sent you? It’s not just some extra room. There’s an entire house underneath mine, in the ground, a furnished house with running water and electricity—some—and a garage that someone is using. Please don’t shoot me in the face with this minimizing business of rooms, please.”

“I apologize,” the man said humbly with eyesockets that, in a cartoon, would take on a teardrop shape. “I’ve been unclear in my questions, disarmingly, distressingly so. The issue concerns an extensive structure located on your property, beneath your residence and connected to your residence. A multi-room structure.”

“There are many rooms. It’s an entire house.”

“With appurtenances and utility hookups?”

“I don’t know. It’s what I said. There’s a working telephone.”

“Oh? Do charges appear on your monthly statement?”

“As far as I know, none of this has shown up anywhere.”

“Um.”

“Mr. Phillips, the house was unoccupied at the moment but there are...plentiful evidences...of inhabitation.”

“Unauthorized residence by persons unknown, on your property.”

“Exactly! We don’t...I don’t know how they arrive, how they come and go, but...see now, someone stacks magazines down there with contemporary dates. Contemporaneous.”

“I see. I know what you mean.”

“There’s a current calendar. There’s food in the refrigerator.”

“A refrigerator.”

“It’s A Furnished House.”

“Yes. You’re talking about the lower one?”

“I sure am!—sorry, I don’t mean to snap at you, in two.”

“Oh let’s disregard that, Rosalie if I may.”

“I think they must come and go through the garage. We think... that; there are two of us exploring the place.”

“Yes, I assumed so.”

She wanted to ask Why? of his assumption but said instead, “There could be an access...well, like a tunnel, from street level. Um, on a slant.”

“There were cars present?”

“Not at the moment. There was oil on the floor, though. I mean the concrete slab.”

“Any smell in the air?”

“What do you mean?” She looked at him sharply.

“I mean, if there is a garage in active use, in a fully enclosed space, beneath the ground, petrol fumes—motor fumes—might be at least a difficulty for you. But...you’ve not noticed any such thing?”

“Mr. Phillips, I just really want to know the, the true status of things, that’s all. Who are these people down there?”

“And, these residents...you’ve not actually spoken with them, or encountered them? In plain fact? You haven’t seen them? Conversed with them?”

“Not at all.”

“Nor challenged them, confronted them, posted a sign, sent a letter demanding...anything?”

“You’re my first stop.”

“I hope to be a good first stop for you, Rosalie.”

 

2

 

They talked some more. Rosalie found it aimless and confusing, and begin to be afraid deep inside herself that she would puddle away into despair. Mr. Phillips continued to smile through his facial darkness, accounted for by Sri Lanka, but his inquiries struck Rosalie as somehow offpoint. Sanford and the peculiarities of the situation had aroused a sense of urgency but this man seemed oblivious and in tiny ways patronizing. His questions were not illogical; she admitted the fact. Yet in some ways they were overly specific. He was interested in details and tiny acute angles that had begun to appear like camouflage.

“Mr. Phillips, are you trying to handle me?”

“Excuse me?”

“To handle me? keep me here until you lock up? and you know, if you don’t accept what I’m saying and just assume I’m coming to you with hallucinations and and some kind of psychosis and God knows I might turn violent in an instant, well, I just don’t care for that.”

The man appeared rattled, like that padlock on the secret garage, and his smile was reabsorbed into his face. “I’d like to make some assurance.”

“Fine. What do you want to assure?”

“It’s natural to be upset in the law.”

“I’m not in the law.”

“But you are, aren’t you Rosalie? By coming here, aren’t you? Are you not?”

“I don’t feel,” she said, “that,” she continued to say, “you intend to lend your services in my direction at all,” she concluded.

“But why?”

“Mr. Phillips, maybe I’m just misreading you. I know you’re a foreigner. You’re an alien; you’re unaligned. If it’s cultural, I’m sorry. I just find myself becoming agitated. It’s too much to sit here for more than an hour and not be deeply understood. Do you see that? When you go down beneath a person’s home and property into some big underground place, completely unknown, with people who come and go with impunity, that’s a little too much like an apple being penetrated by a worm with an absence of consent. Maybe it’s not the same with men. No! it must be the same with men. It’s just that we call it being ravished and you call it...you know. Men make a tearful big baby deal about taking it up the ass. So what about it, Mr. Phillips? Do you? Is it like the holocaust? and I mean the German one.”

“You’re a bit exercised, Rosalie. Would you like water and some privacy?”

“To do what?”

“Well.”

“You mean: to take a pill. I don’t take pills. I don’t have some kind of twitch. What I have is a phenomenon. I have an anomalous house down underneath. It doesn’t seem to me that you entirely get that. Underneath me is a house, and I haven’t yet mentioned it but there may well be more of them in series. In other words this is quite a large matter.”

“I absolutely do agree.”

“So get excited! You’re being too calm. It makes me nervous. You’re not getting it with me. I’m not sure we have the kind of intimacy we need, to, you know, face this issue.” And she fell back exhausted.

“I see,” said Mr. Phillips.

“I’m just expressing myself.”

“You do it with very helpful clarity.”

“What would you like to do, Mr. Phillips?”

“You’re the client, Rosalie, the power is yours. Think of yourself as empowered. I am the provider of services. In this office I am constrained by the ethics of my profession.”

“I don’t think you take me very seriously.”

“But I surely do.”

“I’m not some cow to be grabbed by the udder.”

“I regard you with the utmost respect.”

Mr. Phillips in his own good time suggested to Rosalie that they meet outside the office. She, now, was the one smiling. She politely stood and excused herself and out in the hallway tore the beige card he had handed her into fragments. They fluttered dead to the carpet and she had no intention of gathering them.

 

3

 

The next day she went to a different place, an office in a house on a residential strip that had been rezoned for business. Hanging in front in its quaint way was a real lawyer’s shingle, Richard A. Holguin Attorney At Law.

She thought Are there any attorneys that are not “at law?”

This man was older and bigger and gruffer and whiter and had a woman at a desk in what was once a dining room but now served as an introduction. He beckoned Rosalie into his office and closed the door behind her.

“Okay,” he said even before sitting, and from his muscular lips it seemed to have some real significance.

“I emailed my details,” she said.

“Mm-hmm.”

“What do you think?”

“Hmm. Unusual kinda thing.”

Rosalie smiled. He was already showing traces of getting it. “It’s worrisome. It puts me on edge.”

“Yeah. Strange stuff. Why’d you come to me?”

“I hoped for an evaluation, a revelation from the legal standpoint.”

“Uh-huh. Do you see any of this as criminal?”

“I don’t know. Could it be?”

“Aw well. Anything might be. What do you like to be called?”

“Rosalie.”

“Hmm. Yeah.”

“There’s got to be some kind of criminal activity involved in this underground...dwelling. I mean, keeping it unknown, couldn’t it involve terrorists or smugglers?”

“They, typically, don’t use land-lines.”

“Oh!” she said and felt ashamed. “Well Richard, or Dick,”

“As a married man I’d prefer that you just call me Mr. Holguin.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Let’s get this all together. If there’s criminality, we have to identify a crime. Or are you looking at a lawsuit?”

“Really, I don’t know.”

“If you don’t know, I can’t either. That’s how she works.”

“But, see,” she said, “I thought you could guide me.”

“Mm. Yeah. So there’s this underground house. You just now found out about it. You went down into it on a rope. It’s got furniture and water and a working TV. Right so far?”

“Yes.”

“And it looks like people, maybe a family, are down there living.”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t see anyone.”

“No one, just—”

“Just magazines. And notebook paper, boxes and things. So. Maybe trespass?”

“I sure am concerned about people coming through my house at night without my permission.”

“Yeah. It’d upset me too. So. You might be thinking of some kind of an injunction to keep ’em away. People think of that nowadays because they’ve read about it in the news. Stalking ex-husbands or coworkers and so on.”

“I’m not worried about that.”

“I’m just commenting. How many attorneys have you been to so far?”

“You’re the first,” she lied guiltlessly.

“I’m not going to take any money from you today, and I’m not going to take any more of your time. Some pre-work needs to be done before anything goes further. You’d need it with any attorney, not just me. You need to come in with more of the basics. Telling your story—I’m not saying I didn’t read it with real interest—is not enough. See that?”

“Wh, what do I need to do?”

“May I tell you what I recommend?”

“I’d very much like that, if you would.”

“You have a camera?”

“Oh, I think, somewhere...an old polaroid...”

“Naw, go down to Master Arts Camera, in the mall. Rent a little digital for a day. The flash is automatic. Go down and take some pictures, every room, the TV, the sofa, the front door, the garage. Take a picture of your rope ladder. Get a good clear shot of the john while it’s flushing. Go do that. Some of these new things can hold 500 images.”

“But...what if they’re there, the people?”

“Then take pictures of them. I mean, stand a ways back and shoot ’em and run right back up topside. Put big locks on those doors. In other words, you keep ’em trapped down there, keep the whole thing well contained.”

“Your recommendation doesn’t feel safe to me, honestly.”

“No?”

“I just wanted some advice and guidance.”

“Now you’ve got both.”

“And then I bring these pictures back to you.”

Mr. Phillips considered this question for long moments. “Send them as emailed attachments, to save time. But...you know...this is such a funny, that is unique, matter...it may require some specialization. Let me give you a ref to one of my professional colleagues. He heads a firm. He’s an especially acute attorney. You don’t need to make an appointment. Just head on down any weekday. He has plenty of time to hear these things late in the afternoon, say about 4:30, that way he can reflect on it after he goes home. Jack’s kind of a testy guy—you may have to be real assertive with his secretary...but you just plant yourself right there and say you’re not leaving until he sees you. Tell him I referred you to him, say it just before you leave, after you’ve told him the details of your case. It’s vitally important that you tell him all the little details, beginning to end; and if it even seems to you that you might have overlooked something, just go back and start over and include it. Hm? He may want to consult with me at some point. Be sure to tell him, just before you leave, that I extend him that courtesy.” He handed her a piece of paper with the firm’s address.

As Rosalie left the office she noticed that the secretary was hunched over a box on her desk, face averted. There was something odd about the way her shoulders were moving.

 

4

 

They met the next day somewhere, a parking lot, and sat on her car seats with the doors open, eating a kind of fastfood picnic in the sun and fuzzy smog.

I’m annoyed on your behalf, Sanford told her, turning away from his compressed tuna bun, sunlit.

—I don’t need a behalf.

—You’re so strong it’s chilling. I’ll withdraw Annoyed and say Outraged.

—Thanks, I guess.

—You guess? Roz, I’m mentally defending your very honor. These servants of The Law have toyed with you and mocked you. You know I presume that that last one was saying to you...something rude. Dismissive and certainly humanly unhelpful.

Rosalie said The woman at the desk listening, I’d say was his wife.

—The wife he insisted on.

—As if I were suggesting. I was just being friendly, calling him by his first name.

—Working-class pomposity. Said as if we aren’t working-class and when appropriate, pompous.

This whole long period of time, she said, has been so much unwanted learning, Sanford. I started in Trust and now here I am, here. People are

well what are they? not what I thought

growing up,

Mom and Dad didn’t explain the world very well.

—We’re all caught unprepared. I’m dumbstruck continuously.

Then after a swallow he added And pardon me for serving up the hurtful obvious Roz but Mom and Dad come across as detached.

She said in a hurt strange voice Those people didn’t really seem to be Mom and Dad at all. Not mine. I’m not sure anymore that that yellow telephone really reached them. I’m not at all sure.

—Then what was that conversation?

—I don’t know. How can I know? anything. A house underground

Probably a suburb of them, going down, he reminded her.

She nodded slightly. —Oh I do believe that. I sure do. No one else does. Attorneys getting offended at my odor of nonsense and making a joke of it. We saw and we touched. Really down there.

—Mm hmm but the thing about Reality is that it has to be Realistic. What we have, flower unfolding, is something so startling as to be idiotic. Is that not the exact literary word? Idiotic? Like stumbling upon some psychotic street imbecile jerking off right in your face. I don’t know about you but I myself would recoil.

—And that’s what they’re doing?

—I’d say so. Not that their manner is any less outrageous for being humanly understandable. But I can see that reports of things that can not possibly be might produce a little dissonance of the Cogito.

But look at me, she said, listen to my voice. I’m speaking plainly to you and to them, I’m meeting their eyes

But not all eyes really want to be met, he said.

—Sanford. It’s not always a psychology thing. It’s not always big existential whatevering. Don’t bark out how stinginess is philosophical caution. People can invest in another human being just by opening up to it, to the possibility of it.

—You’ve found that?

—God I am that.

—Yeah. Now you listen. We go down and touch and see and with growing trepidation, do you like words like that? trepidation we explore and push on like Lewis and Clark and the thing is, we find things like a television that emits anti-words and a telephone that connects you to peculiar replicas in verbal cardboard of two people dear to you. Just how skimpily were you up-brought? to expect lawyers, no less, to nod and accept that sort of eruption.

You know Sanford, she said gravely but with a smile as a shield, you don’t seem the same person yourself.

—You’re not on that telephone now.

You were a lot more squishy at Trust it seems to me, she said, more like good tough bread soaked in buttermilk. We sat in those plastic chairs by the food machines and as we talked it seemed you were being shaped. Now I have to wonder if the shaping crossed some kind of natural barrier. It’s like...a trajectory. You began at a point and then you passed through another point, which was the Creator Group and how you were there, all densely artistic and fascinating, and the trajectory continued to this, here. This version of you. To be sickly blunt, I think you overshot. I wasn’t at all hoping for this you. Know something? You’ve stopped speaking in words, Sanford. Now it’s nothing but sentences and paragraphs.

Sanford did not speak, in anything. He drank some styrofoam. Rosalie thought he might become angry or hurt and roll back his face like an automatic garage door.

But instead he said: Rosalie there were things that I couldn’t tell you about.

—What? You mean at Trust? How is it there? you never do talk about it.

The question seemed to renew his oxygen, allowing him to veer for a moment from what he had to say and had almost said. —Oh, at Trust? Just fine and well at Trust. Even funny. Our little corner? the chairs? the food machines? Out of order. Someone got mad at the soda machine and assaulted it, I guess with...well, it couldn’t have been one of the plastic chairs, it had to be something heavy and sharp...but the whole front was cracked open and red junk liquid was all over, a real mess, and there I was first thing in the morning and there was Mrs. Govaleen right down on the floor. She must have felt entirely humiliated, being seen like that. But that’s what goes with responsibility—occasional indignity. Get paid to handle things and Man, you can expect things to handle. They haven’t even replaced the machine yet. The office, oh everyone gets upset by nitwit happenstance like that. You raise your voice, and, say, this applies to you right now Roz, and people just shrivel up and run screeching wildly. Just some little break in the daily routine. So much rigidity...you have to be adaptive, hmm? Yeah, I suppose I have changed, I’ve adapted. But see, I’m not on a trajectory away from myself, Roz, I’m orbiting back into myself. That’s it, and so are you.

—That’s not what you were about to bring up. What are you guilty of? Please don’t treat me like an exploding pie crust Sanford just tell me.

All right, he said. And you’re right and true. I feel bad and guilty. I made a choice to conceal some facts.

 

5

 

Rosalie coagulated in the face of dread. But she waited as Sanford waited and then gave up on waiting. —This is about the Creators, he prefaced.

Oh? she said But I think I knew that.

—Sure. And you can guess, they did continue to meet, they did reject and exclude you. I propped you up to them but they wouldn’t look at it. Because...

Because I didn’t Show..., she prompted.

—and told them of your innocent miscarriage, the innocence. God yes. But, see, you had mentioned the possibility, maybe a little too frankly, what the ob-gyn had been warning you about. You see? too much openness and honesty, more than they were accustomed to. As if you were setting the stage for credibility when you couldn’t produce the kid. And so they whispered of things.

—that I was an empty hoax.

That’s a nice way to put it, Sanford said with real admiration. You were the odd fit, Roz, because you were visual, not a matter of words. They think in words. They see things through like  word glasses. I don’t, I try not to, I think of sentences as straight and skinny crisscross things constituting a flyscreen across, and defending, truth; talk about pompous! To see anything you have to see through. But those women, and I include The Scrawny—he once hit on me and not subtly—they’ve trapped themselves.

Sort of a colendar, Rosalie offered as a further metaphor.

—Except nothing goes through, actually, in their case. So yeah, they all, we all, started to meet on the same night, same time, but at the library in a meeting room that could be rented. There was a big glass window, like the one in that underground living room. In fact it had vertical blinds, so there’s even more of a similarity.

I’m sure they carefully closed the blinds, she said bitterly.

—Very carefully but, I noticed, the blinds didn’t work too well, warped, and you could still see in from the parking lot.

—They met there and let me just hang.

—I was there too. I can’t let myself off, Rosalie. I should have stood up and screamed and stormed out in protest. At least I should have contributed an angry paragraph to the discussion. I could have talked about trust and simple humanity, human kindness. I could have said

Just go on, she interupted.

—I don’t know why I was so compliant. Maybe I was just squishy milk-bread. But then what happened...changed us all. One night, a car, it was a Honda Civic praise Buddha and pretty old...revved up out in the parking lot and flung itself right at the wall and smashed the big window to pieces, as you can visualize, and it was just—heaving chaos, in that circle. There was even a fire, just a little one but with a fair amount of smoke.

She asked if anyone had been hurt.

—Hurt? Yes. It was a circle. Some of them were close to the window but turned away. Their backs were vulnerable. The front of the car came in and glass was just whirling around all over.

—Who was hurt?

—Oh it’s all been confusing, picking out who was hurt and keeping straight who was just frightened. Some were bleeding. Police came, ambulances came. As to the man in the car, well, it’s not entirely clear...

—But it must have been just inadvertent.

—Must? huh. Yes, but still you need to know with a little definiteness, and the man was elderly and, well

He died? she asked.

—He’s in intensive care. I think he had a heart attack. I guess that’s what caused it, as he started to drive.

Well, she said, at least the Civic predator wasn’t someone boiling over at the uselessness of literature.

—The Creator Group is pretty well shattered right now.

—So now you’re really not meeting.

—Not now. Maybe not ever again.

That, she said, and how smugly good it felt! is truly a hiatus.

 

6

 

He asked Do you hate me Roz for my moral cowardice?

Not right now, she replied. Maybe I will in time. I may even be annoyed at your survival. But right now on this day here with these sandwiches and napkins, I don’t hate you. Let’s give it time.

Take all the time you need, he smiled.

 

7

 

Sanford urged Rosalie to try an even more desperate expedient, penetrating the more tender inner parts of The Law. So next day she went to the office of her city councilwoman during visiting hours.

Councilwoman Lily Vennom had the biggest office yet with a broad front room and books rowed up behind glass windows and a male secretary. The City building was very stern yet it had a sort of fatherly strength; all big things from the 1950’s projected that sort of feeling.

“I don’t often have the pleasure of meeting a constituent from out in the suburbs,” said Councilwoman Vennom, a fat old lady constructed entirely out of clotted cream. “I love the suburbs...”

“Why?” asked Rosalie.

“Don’t you love the family-feeling? It’s all about home and children and everything that matters in life. It’s Real, isn’t it? You don’t have to devote yourself to politics.”

“I know you pride yourself of, on, constituent services.”

“I’m the Tiger of Potholes.”

“I’m not a pothole.”

“I’m glad to meet you, Mrs. Benson.”

“Please don’t start this off by making assumptions,” Rosalie said. “Don’t stereotype me as just some kind of near-death-from-alcoholism-dementia tract home hausfrau. I’m just Rosalie. What I’m bringing you is important to me personally but also well I, I’d think it has implications.”

“How may I help you, Rosalie?”

Rosalie pursed her lips, if pursing can be applied to lips that bulge in the inward direction. “I’ve come up with...evidences...of unlawful living activity underneath my property.”

“A homeless camp? Like that?”

“It’s not that easily put. But please grasp that the word is Underground, that’s what’s important. This living is taking place several yards underneath my property line. Well, that’s not quite the word, I should say underneath my property surface.”

“Excavation of some kind?”

“Of some kind absolutely!”

“Without a city permit?”

“Oh, oh I don’t know. I don’t even know how to look it up, what to look at. What department handles stuff like this? Who do I see?”

“Hm.”

“That’s my question.”

“I’m not...so...You say these people are encroaching onto your property...”

“Ma’am, these people are already fully encroached into the underneath of my damn property. Oh...I’m sorry.”

“Oh please, you’re entirely mild and restrained compared to many of those who come through my door! I can take the heat. But now I’d like to take this in with more clarity.”

“Of course, obviously.”

“Just where exactly is the site of this encampment?”

“It is exactly a ways underneath my home, the home I live in, at an address I’ll give you whenever you want it. Come, send over your boy out in the office, police, inspectors, I’ll be welcoming and gracious any time every time. You see, I’m unemployed.”

“This is a challenging time economically.”

“Well, at least you have a job. Now have I explained the situation sufficiently? I could’ve emailed you something but I’ve had poor results with that approach.”

“You made a good choice,” said Vennom soothingly. “This office receives piles and piles of things one doesn’t care to receive.”

“I’m sure your time is limited...”

“I’m obligated to begin preparing for a conference in three minutes or so, I’m embarrassed to say.”

“You grasp the overall situation, though, don’t you?”

“It’s—”

“This has absolutely nothing to do with my being jobless and no I don’t really need loving attention or to have my self-esteem boosted! It’s the situation! That’s why I’m here. It can’t be legal, having people just living away in an entire furnished house down under my basement, it can’t be legal for them to traipse through my house with warning or permission    ”

“Now...I think you need to help me catch up.”

“Coun...Lily, I’ve found and walked through an entire furnished tract home that’s located in the earth down under my own. It has electricity and phone and water—for God sake that’s utilities!—and I would think the city has legal jurisdiction.”

“Yes, if it’s in or under my district.”

“There’s a public safety issue too. People seem to live down there, dwell within it, see? intermittently but currently, and they come and go and have a two-car garage.”

“The underground complex has a garage?”

“We didn’t open the door, but there must be a tunnel or corridor up to the street.”

“That sort of issue involves Highways and Thoroughfares, which Dean MacNaybel heads up. Then there’s zoning.”

“But what about the dwellers? Just as themselves, by being down there? Isn’t that in and of itself a violation? Did someone approve all this back when the tract got approved? Does the city sanction this sort of thing, Lily? You know, I’m not casting paranoid aspersions. I’m not threatening to picket or make a scene at a Council meeting. I know you take ’em off in straitjackets with guns drawn. But I’d be curious to know, off the record, who’s involved in this. If anyone. That’s pretty reasonable.”

Councilwoman Vennom checked her watch with enough calculated subtlety to be obvious but deniable. “Rosalie, your concerns impress and interest me. It sounds like someone somewhere has violated city codes and I intend to get to the bottom of it. That is my commitment to you. Do you feel safe?”

“Safe?”

“With those squatters coming and going?”

“I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel unsafe. I don’t feel at all, I just want something done, rationally, action taken. Even further down...” But Rosalie thought it best not to explain absolutely all, and it would come clear with investigation. “It’s just Where does it end?”

“Yes, exactly. I have to leave now, Rosalie, and I apologize. Let me give you the number of the City Attorney’s office. Ask to speak to Fred Janns. He’s helped my constituents on many occasions. He’s a warm, understanding guy.”

But Rosalie had already decided, in concrete, that she would bother no more with attorneys, and she doubted that this one was a warm, understanding guy.

 

8

 

She pursued the law. The scent stimulated her. She went to the police station, the main one, and found it earth-toned and just short of modern, though once it had surely been described as modern and even contemporary.

There were posters on the wall addressed to the eyes of children that spoke with clear-eyed chide of drugs and gangs. Some even barked over that subject. There is nothing like a dog, she thought, nothing in the world.

A lowly woman led to a lowly man, and then she came to the public relations office, the prettiest office of all. The man was himself pretty in a faded-soap-opera way.

“Now then,” he invited with pleasant and toned heat.

“This doesn’t really seem to me to be a public relations issue,” Rosalie said. “Sorry if I sound impatient but I’ve been all over.”

Lt. Swerski chuckled and it was in fact the first credible chuckle Rosalie had heard in quite a while, and it was well done too. She was willing to buy it. He said: “Welcome to the way things are done. I thought I’d end up running around catching bank robbers.”

“Let me say something Lieutenant,  ”

“Bob.”

“Mm, jeez is everyone named Bob? Look, I’m trying myself into spasms to discover where I’m supposed to go with this thing. Nobody seems to have a slot in their mind.”

“I see. Go on.”

“Maybe if I put it this way. I’m

being stalked by a house,

an actual gosh-to-God house.

Do I have your interest?”

“Ab So Lootlee.”

“I’m saying Stalked!”

“You need to feel protected. We’re here To Serve and Protect.”

“To Protect and Seal.”

Bob was widely smiling or something similar. “Now tell me Rosalie. Who is stalking you?”

All right. “A house.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

“I’m not so sure either.” She came close to laughing. “This is all so stupid, so ridiculous. But all people have to do is take a look. Okay don’t bother believing me just go down and take a look. Or take a book. Books, paper, furniture, food—Bob. Look. I’m trying to deal in a calm and responsible way with the discovery, the presence, of an underground house connected up to mine.”

“Your residence?”

She laid forth the entire account in measured doses, hoping it didn’t sound like a repeated dream, knowing that it did, hoping further down that it wasn’t.

“That’s quite a thing,” Bob said at the concussion, conclusion.

“Isn’t it?”

“Sounds upsetting.”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

“Sure I would. O yeah.”

“O Lord Deliver Us.”

“The lawyers wouldn’t touch it?”

“Really I didn’t ask them to touch it. I wanted some guidance as to the best way to proceed.”

“Blew you off.”

“So maybe it’s a Law thing. Maybe it’s a police thing.”

“Sounds like a possibility.”

“But they shoveled me your way Bob because I’m just another buck to be passed.”

“I like the way you put things.”

“Now are you gonna give me some of your Serve? Or shall I just up and walk out, again unfulfilled?”

Bob studied the matter with curtained eyes and at least a slight gesture at taking her seriously. “Do you mind if I summarize back what you’ve said? It’s not meant to be patronizing.”

“Go ahead.”

His summary was adequate and, at least, noncommital; which was something, minimally.

“That’s it, Bob,” she congratulated him.

He nodded endearingly like a sheepdog. His ears almost flapped. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Mm. Are you asking for an officer to be sent out, to drop over and nose around a little? It’s a good start, getting a report on file.”

Rosalie began to swell toward gratitude and a signing-on to the notion. Then she was startled by thoughs of old paint cans dry and set up like a tiny block of office buildings, neatly arranged but for all that a likely violation of something.

“What do you think Rosalie?”

“Well,” she said. She yearned for something further, some second word, to come forward, but her heart was beating, beating blood up to her face.

“Or do you have another idea?”

“I think well at the moment, I...”

“We’re ready to do what it takes for you to feel safe and protected in your own neighborhood.”

“Um...” She was stunned that she hadn’t thought the whole matter through to the end.

“Tell me.”

“Rather than, than take anyone’s time, no, I, think, I think what I’ll do is take some photos of, of the place. Then there’ll be something to make it more substantial. It’s not that you’re sitting there with a big white face calling me a pathological liar. I don’t say that, Bob. You’ve been decent to me and I feel propped up.”

He nodded. “That’s it.”

“When things are strange like this—what a friend calls eruptions—I know it’s humanly difficult to just fall into real belief. It’s too odd. We can both laugh. It makes a clown of Reality. But that’s not healthy, laughing in this case.”

“Is someone laughing?”

“To handle it, well, I’ll handle it. I’ll take 500 pictures and then I’ll definitely Show. Won’t I.”

“That’s one approach. Certainly. Do you feel comfortable with that?”

“What are you writing down there Bob?”

“The pen? I was just about to ask  ”

“A question.” And just what else could a person ask?

“This is just a standard form we fill out.”

“I don’t see any lines on your standard form. I don’t see any boxes. I don’t see any numbers. May I tell you something, Bob? To me what you’ve got there is just a blank sheet of paper.”

Chuckle and grin. “Got me! I forgot to replenish my supply of forms. I’ll just jot down your answers and transfer them later and hope my supervisor doesn’t notice. You won’t tell him will you Rosalie?”

She shrugged. “What do you want?”

He took down some basic statistics and as this was happening Rosalie was arriving at the conviction that it was all a blind to get to:

“Do you have a doctor?”

“A medical practitioner?”

“Of any kind. It’s just  ”

“Oh of course it’s just a standard question Bob of that I am sure. Looking for an Ob-Gyn?”

“An... ?”

“Right after I,

well I was pregnant you know

don’t you Bob

and lost the baby

Well, right after he had to leave.

It wasn’t some sort of vacation or fleeing.

He said he had to attend to something.

I didn’t feel privileged to ask where or

what it was.

It wasn’t an interview Bob for my own standard form,

no it was just a conversation.”

“I’m sorry about your loss,” he said.

“I assumed you knew.”

“It’s always tragic.”

“Oh have you tried to give birth yourself?”

“Actually, I wasn’t asking about that kind of doctor, just you see   ”

“This’ll let you down. I don’t have an assigned doctor.”

“Not someone you see? This is all confidential.”

“What happens to me if I skip the form? If I just politely and calmly stand up and walk through that door behind me? Do I get shot? That’s pretty bad public relations. Let me tell you, the public doesn’t like being shot.”

“Please.”

She laughed. “I thought you were tenderly attentive, but you know what? you’re way too tender and you’re attentive to the wrong things. May I leave?”

“Rosalie...if I...”

“Sorry Bob. Bye. Bang-bang.”

She made it out to the street and into her car and the only consequence was her noticing, for the first time, some dents and scrapes up front. But they didn’t do it, not the police, not public relations, she told herself, not while I was inside, they’ve been there for a while but I just didn’t take note.

I’ve had quite a lot on my mind, she persisted.


 

BOOTCAMP

 

1

 

 

Rosalie didn’t call Sanford at home anymore, not anymore, because she didn’t like the voice that usually answered and didn’t like clicking off without speaking, as she was becoming ruder, willingly, but hadn’t yet attained that further point of contempt for others. Sanford met her at different places out in the smogged yellow world. There they would talk, sometimes eat, sometimes more than either if circumstances and onlooker stances made it a possible thing.

He told her You need to watch how you come across.

And she said to him Oh really? maybe you could tell me how to turn my eyes around in their sockets and do that, would you.

—It seems to me at times Roz that you’re too difficult for words.

—And you’re a word guy.

—Yet still and despite, my adoration is untouched. But you know, confrontation is not confirmation.

—I know it’s not affirmation.

—You get nowhere. You get to nothing, nothingness. And what’s that, what is that? It’s Nothing.

Rosalie said sort’ve Un-huh.

—The point, the point of this pointing finger, is that when you become overexercized Roz your innate judgment drifts away in imitation of a black thundercloud and there you are left behind and wet.

She responded, Sanford. You don’t seem to me to speak like what I grew up with as a normal human being, now do you.

—I no longer want to.

—Say what you’re saying.

—You don’t monitor yourself very well.

No I suppose I don’t, she admitted, No. I’ve never liked the flimsiness of really committed self-monitors. Like, pasteboard walls? Tricky people...no, that’s too far a departure from my unborn Way of Being.

—What you’re trying to become, La Egg.

—I shouldn’t lose it.

—What you lose is credibility. And then you’re just a label on a manila folder and absolutely everything down inside that folder is never looked at again. I’d think you’da learned by now that you hafta adapt. Observe from behind your fingers, behind your spread fan of office papers, and then emerge and be just like them.

Unh-hunh, she said But you Sanford Kinz are not like anybody, now.

—Oh, well, me. Set aside the case right in front of your eyes, Roz, and consider the even closer case right inside your skin.

Well I suppose, she said, I guess I got a little sharp with some of those people. But you know, it’s been hard. Maybe I’m just too unemployed right now.

—A little too much opportunity for that dwelling.

—No one wants to deal with this House development.

—Talked to Mom and Dad?

At this Rosalie drew a blank, drew it right on her face. Mom and Dad, she repeated.

—You said they didn’t seem like themselves.

Yes I did call them recently, she said. They were all right, they were just fine.

—Not counterfeits this time.

—If I went over there right now, over to the house, I know they’d talk just as they used to and have the same old faces. It was only the yellow telephone that flipped them over into something...eerie. Disarming. Alarming. Disturbing.

—Excuse me Roz but is that the most helpful of attitudes to take as a slant on this reality? The TV business was one thing, and I can’t account for it, but it’s just a house, a real house, you can’t adopt the policy that everything down there is aberrant.

She nodded with something of a rolling motion. —I’m not sure where to go next.

Where you go next, he said, is down.

 

2

 

Down meant that she was to go exploring, to handle it with downclimbing legs, spelunking into whatever lay beyond and beneath the first of the underground houses.

She was convinced there were many. There would be; it was right. She could see the diagram, one below another, like the cutaways of the earth that show crust and mantle and core. It would be a downward safari, an expedition into a painted jungle. It would not be a matter of an hour, an afternoon, a day. No doubt the levels would be connected by a hanging-rope descent, one after another. And then the ascent back to the surface. It would be foolish not to press on to the end, the bottom, the nitty-gritty, before rising again, for good, with 500 pictures and perhaps a few artifacts.

It would be a muscular thing.

 

3

 

She joined something called Awake And Sing Bootcamp. It was a cinderblock warehouse, something of a large gray sugarcube, hulking in a strip mall shopping center in another pie-slice of the endless suburb. On the other side of the parking lot was a Dutch-themed restaurant, with a windmill and waitresses in those white cloth hats that curl up like smiles.

The shopping center was called Old Dutch Heaven.

Bootcamp was a gym and bodily expansion facility for women, women of Sterner Stuff. There were the usual treadmills and stationary bikes, and Y-armed machines for you to lift and separate, thereby rendering you suddenly shapelier. There was the great chamber of jumping and shouting for those aerobically inclined. It all seemed rather quaint. Rosalie, little girl, had accompanied her mother to things like this. It was pleasing, if startling, that these places belonging to an earlier time had managed to persist into what called itself Now. Little Girl Z’s didn’t manage that, she thought. That little girl was replaced long long ago. Her memories though had been inherited.

 

4

 

Her preparation for the conquest of the subsuburban wild was The Cliff. It was a wall of latex, irregular, crinkled like a paper lunchsack of the lost era when children had paper lunchsacks, that in parts stretched up very high above the cushioned floor. There were little holes and protruding grips and flexible hooklike things and rings that could swivel, and the idea was to climb and to develop, over time, thighs and calfs and butts in the shape of Samoans, and arms like legs.

She began climbing.

There were timeslots up and down the day and evening, assigned to different levels of mastery. Rosalie found herself more dedicated than she had expected, even more than she had hoped. She kept returning. It went on and on and up and up and those lumpy, tight young girls who stood uttering encouragements became more attentive. She had crossed some kind of membrane of intimacy in the minds of the trainers, a blood-brain barrier, for these were clear-eyed young ladies with aspiration who enjoyed being knocked-back by women who protruded beyond the social fabric. Rosalie, a handful of years older, impressed them and added a hint of something to their perspirations.

She made no effort toward finding work, except on paper in the form of little promissory black marks submitted to the state department of money. She supplemented her existence with such savings as she had managed to stash. She asked nothing from Sanford Kinz. His duty, morally, was to others. She didn’t wish to think of those Others and, as asking for his money participation in her life would remind her of Them, she refrained and knew he understood. He spoke of Them no more than she did. Nor did he speak often of Trust, and then the things he told her, the accounts of an office disturbed by lack of food, seemed too literary and thus insignificant.

She climbed, day by day she climbed and descended. She didn’t value the pain, not as much as was urged upon her. She didn’t feel the burn. It was a string of pulsations that eventually merged into an illustrated background curtain of ache. Just ache. Tedious enough, conveyed to her mind in reports from her outer shell of muscle which seemed increasingly a kind of callus resting upon some tenderness that remained beneath. Perhaps it was like a scar that covered everything about her.

She looked at her hands, her fingers. Day by week they were turning into something like metal cooking implements, big pronged forks. She lifted them up before her eyes, lifted them up at the end of her arms, and jiggled them back and forth. Her wrists bared flexed. She was becoming a rigid sort of thing and she felt safer.

 

5

 

At home, between climbs, she felt different about being there, about what There was like. The house was comfortable in a new way. There was a radiation of confidence. As she progressed, as she evolved, everything within the walls of the house was expanding. Things that were once compressed into trivial detritus were becoming big. She noticed that the dining table was Big and so was the bed and even the very floorplan of the house was becoming

it was

it was like a sea shell growing underwater, becoming bigger and more complex as its inhabitant exuded more dividers, more rooms. The house she lived in was becoming more fully elaborated. She knew of course that all these changes were mental, attitudinal. She was only seeing, under the pressure of a new neurochemistry, sides of things that had always been there to be seen. As her musculature became toughened her eyes and ears were becoming wider and more sensitized. More detail, more richness, was admitted into her open-armed mind and she only had to stand and Look. Just Look.

Despite unemployment, her bank account also seemed to have evolved. She had expected to watch it shrink, roll out like the tide. She had envisioned being left on a dry beach, The dry beach, but instead she found herself doing surprisingly well. She was being clever in some manner that escaped her attention, and she much enjoyed the wonder of that fact. She needed no help and no pity from Sanford or Mom and Dad or anyone else. By climbing the wall she discoverted that she was made of Sterner Stuff, and that in itself was a delight. The house, the houses below, were teaching her something. Forced evolution.

Yet in wondering at it she also wondered about it. The mind is like that. The goodness of good fortune is never enough. One wants to pry back and look at the machinery, to find out how the thing works. By what accident was this happening, this ever-burning oil lamp? Rosalie could balance a bank account and maintain the laxative flow of ordinary incomings and outgoings. She was unquestionably responsible in paying bills. She had never gone bankrupt or walked out on anything. But this multiplication of loaves and fishes was a Fact she could never have brought about by any application of thought. She was hardly over-capable in matters of higher finance. She had no investments.

Unless the house itself was an investment. True, of course. She wouldn’t borrow against it but it did occur to her and provoke some light of delight that someday she would have a great deal to sell. For it might turn out that she owned all the houses, the entire downward chain, a city that never saw the sun, and to put an entire city on the market would surely bring forth real money to retire on.

Inevitably she ambled in her wanderings into visions of illustrating, of creating images about the world yet for themselves with no other necessity. It was a good future. She wanted to become lost in the real world, not this counterfeit world of harsh bosses and stringent false friends, this phony substitute of a world with its hours of risings and settings, with its pieces of paper and circles to be completely filled in in order to persist in living.

That wasn’t reality. That was the painted plastered-up billboard obscuring green fields.

 

6

 

As the cliffish wall made Rosalie tougher and hardier, and visibly so, she thought again of appearing at a meeting of the City Council. Even if her home’s personal representative, Mrs. Vennom, had proven vulnerable to distraction and the press of minutes, the Council was a civic body. Bodies transcend their constituents, their organs. She reminded herself: Body is the human drama. Now, in her containment cubicle of muscle, she saw what it meant and had to agree.

She attended the afternoon meeting. She put her name on the roster. She knew the Council was required by law to allow microphone comment by the public, and there had been a court decision prohibiting them from chatting or reading newspapers to evade such comment and its stupid tedium.

“I know,” she said into the standing microphone as five women and three men looked at her, “that you hear a lot of violently idiotic crap through this mike. I want to respect your time. I only want you all to be aware of a peculiar situation. I told Councilwoman Vennom about it, but she was distracted and may not have fully grasped what I was saying. She wanted to send me elsewhere but I don’t care to be fobbed. This is a matter that may affect public safety and hygiene. I have to say, you could be facing legal liability, you The City.”

They now were looking at her with unrolled eyes.

“I am unemployed.”

They began to look away, to other places and things.

“But that only makes me vulnerable. I’m no less important. I am a citizen and I vote. I voted for Mrs. Vennom. I voted for, for that measure that let you raise your salaries. I ask you only for some attention, some polite attention, and then thereafter something less perfunctory.”

She knew she was looking upon some suppressed smiles.

“I am unemployed through no fault of my own.”

Mrs. Vennom leaned forward into her table mike and said gently, “Rosalie, have you had a chance to see Dean MacNaybel, Highways and Thoroughfares, as I suggested?”

“This is well beyond such an individual, Lily.”

Mrs. Vennom nodded, polite and chiding at one time, which is what politicians and all persons with some flesh of authority in their mouths learn to do.

“This, and I know my time is limited, is about the construction and abandonment of tract homes in my area—Mrs. Vennom’s district—and their contemporaneous use at this time by unauthorized personnel. I hope no one will be offended by the word squatters.” A buzzing voice asked where these offending objects were located. “They are located on my property. Blatantly put, they are located underground. I have observed, passed through, this house with my own eyes and those of an accompanying person. It is a complete furnished and utilitied home—I use that term because someone is living there—with attached garage. There is good evidence of another one beneath it. And so on down.”

This underground construction is within your property line?

“Yes. It represents a clear and present danger to my own inhabited domicile, and I would think also to the adjacent public sidewalk and street and there’s the liability for you. There is also a question of conspiracy to commit trespass.”

You say it’s a conspiracy?

“That’s not too psychopathic a word. There may well be criminal activity. Why else would people be living down there underground? I can’t be expected to solve the problem of homelessness. That’s a civic burden. As to what these people are doing, you have to wonder about the sexual element. Sado-Masochism and outright murder and dismemberment.”

Covert rumbling, with interest.

And what do the police say?

“I spoke to a Bob. I found it not a useful interaction. I know you good people want evidence of this absurdity, which is certainly a situation I would never have dreamed up or expected to come up in my lifetime. I plan to, to acquire and present photographic evidence of the most stringent kind. I...as you can see...am readying myself physically for this undertaking, and pardon the pun.”

Have you considered

“I wish to consider nothing. I’m done. Thank you for your kind attention.”

She left the microphone, the chamber, the building.

 

7

 

Sanford pointed out to her that though there had been a reporter or two present in the room, there was no story in the paper the next day or the next. Rosalie was prepared for this. She was resigned to having done her civic duty unsung. But at least she did it. At least she sung.

He told her: Roz I am ever so impressed that you avoided saying There may well be criminal activity and I don’t mean illegal storing of old paint cans.

 

8

 

Rosalie and the appreciative young employees of Awake And Sing Bootcamp in Old Dutch Heaven agreed that she was more than adequate to the labors of climbing. They spoke of handling heights well, but she knew it was a matter of depths.

 

9

 

There was further preparation for the Necessary Expedition Unto Truth. She and Sanford went to the Basic 5 Plus Sporting Superstore, which was a new and latest, and sought equipment, the accoutrements of downward exploration in sawtooth sorties.

“What we need,” she told the sandy-haired boy, “is some rope ladder or something to tie on to something firm, go straight down about 15 feet, then go over as much as a hundred feet or so, then go down again. Over and over, see, an unknowable number of times for some lengthy span of time, and then of course when we reach the end we’ll have to come back up.”

The sandy-haired boy resembled a dial tone and fnally said off into space, “Yeah can I help you  ” with that much irresolution.

“Just what would you use for climbing down?”

Sanford whispered a suggestion and she continued, “Isn’t there something really light that one person can carry that unfolds or extends?”

“You mean a ladder, like?”

“I guess, a climbdown ladder which you can use also for upward climbing.”

“Uhhh  ”

“I guess Bob you don’t have a clue as to what I’m burbling in your face.”

“It’s like I guess maybe this isn’t a store for ladders but maybe like a Home Depot  ”

“I have enough homes.” She smiled as she flexed unseen. “Thanks Bob for being only mildly useless.”

But she did buy a couple backpacks and canteens and such useful things, including a compass. She approached the sleeping bag counter but Sanford pointed out that these residential tract homes were furnished and the beds were comfortable and covered; some might even have comforters.

Of course we’ll use the master bedroom to facilitate our erotic contours, he noted with pragmatic innuendo.

I guess if you talked like a normal human being you wouldn’t be you, she said back.

I wouldn’t be literary, he said; I would be a thing excised.

 

10

 

They found and purchased and brought home a special kind of ladder advertised as For Professionals By Professionals. It had long pieces of bright metal that slid along and within one another like the runners on a Trust filing cabinet with the drawers that come way out into the middle of the desk room. Other than a few jointed crossbars that were rigid metal tubes, the ladder steps were actually strips of tough fabric like a sort of lacquered canvas. The whole thing slid and folded and compressed into a compact deal that you could carry on your backpack, carry with ease if you had reasonably developed leg muscles: that’s how light it was. It came with swing-out hook things and clamps and the point was you could twist a handle at the bottom and the graspers on the top would let loose and the ladder would slide into itself downward. It could be extended upwards and clamped by a similar philosophy.

They also bought, not rented, a digital camera. They bought many of the tiny batteries.

They laid in a store of energy bars although Sanford reminded her that the refrigerators were stocked with fresh and edible and even partially eaten food.

What if they come in and find us eating their food? she mused.

He replied Then we can all sit down at the table and eat as one. It’d make a nice photo.

 

11

 

The day came. And when the day came Sanford arrived in hardy masculine dressing and gave her the unspoken impression that he had said some reasonable things to still the Voices that answered his phone, the voices inhabiting his house, unwanted suburban occupants that Rosalie unwanted very much.

They put themselves together, went to the bathroom, and then squeezed through the Mop Closet and down through the basement. Rosalie noticed the pingy smell of the dry paint cans beneath the pink raincoat. She said to Sanford

—I know the smell is almost nothing but you’ve got me thinking about them so much it gets magnified.

—The subject looms up in the increasing magnesium flarelight of your mind, and I say that with apology knowing your literary allergies.

—Please try.

—Oh always. But if I’m not myself Roz who is there left for me to be?

And so they walked across in the bulb light and gave the paintcanscape as little a glance as they could.

She lifted off the wooden cover.


 

VERTICAL SUBURB

 

1

 

The Professional Ladder tested out nicely.

In the under-attic, the very cap of the descending chain of residence, they swung about their flashlamps, each of them now having one. Rosalie saw a wink on the floor. She laughed and Sanford said Well hello little ring, always forgotten, never retrieved.

She picked it up and squeezed it in her hand and then put it back down where it had been.

 

2

 

In the under-house they found no life, but explored for changes. There were disturbances in the bed. The school essay was gone.

There was also a quiet but persistent sound, somewhat rough in a fluid way. By casual triangulation they found its source. The toilet was running in the master bathroom.

The valve thing must be stuck, Rosalie said as she looked at the stirring water.

And as she looked, it glurked and the waters stilled.

Sanford, she said, it wasn’t stuck.

—No.

It was still running from use, she said It was completing the normal process.

—As designed, Roz.

She said with just the slightest vibration of tone and limb  Which must mean that someone is just a few dozen footsteps ahead of us.

—One might say this house is not only inhabited but is at this very moment is use. Are you

Yes, she said, I’m afraid.

—But in no way convulsed or delirious.

That’s stupid, she said. —and besides the Awake and Sing people teach that the edge of fear in the body is like a singing blade. It keeps you sharp.

—A fantastically perverted metaphor for The Scrawny to exploit.

 

3

 

Yet despite the obvious fact of Occupation, well evidenced and well despited, there were no lights in the house but their own and a few LED stick figures on box-things that ought to have declared the clocktime but in fact were incomprehensible angular symbols.

—No footsteps, Sanford whispered and he sounded rather mocking.

—I wouldn’t expect any on a carpet.

They poked forward down the hallway with a semblance of caution as if seeking guerillas in a jungle. They rounded a corner with their lamps off and gazed into the utter blackness in statuesque silence. Exterior silence; Rosalie’s heart stomped away and in the inner racket she forgot her new muscles.

There was no sound. No audible sound. But there was indeed an inaudible sound that very slowly, as ears joined eyes in becoming accustomed, unveiled itself. It was a familiar sound and in less disstraiting circumstances might even have given comfort, motherly comfort. It was the tiny steady whir of a refrigerator motor. Once it clicked, and for moments there was only a chinging silence, a gliding moment while the motor rested. Then it resumed.

Nothing else.

They’re listening too, she thought And they may have infrared goggles.

She gagged backwards into the wall as Sanford flipped on his lamp and half-tossed it into the living room. It tumbled across the carpet and stopped in front of the coffee table. Its light bounced beyond its articulate bright beam in all directions and everything, everything was dimly visible.

There were no gunshots, no boogey screeches.

Nothing suddenly awakened

rushed out of the darkness.

—No one here, Sanford said too openly.

She put a hand on his arm and for a time they held back, breathing.

All right, she said But what about the toilet?

There’s the garage, he replied and it was not the kind of help she really wished for.

 

4

 

They went to the refrigerator and found anew a source of cold light. There were new leftovers.

Sanford swipped a bit of lemon meringue with his finger and tasted it and pronounced it good. He got some more and held out his finger and was insistent in word and expression. Rosalie sucked it off and he pretended ecstacy.

But anyway it’s perfectly fresh, she said.

He nodded and wiped his hand on his khakis. —I think there’ll be good eating on this expedition.

Look, she said from a stride away.

The leaves of the hanging calendar had turned. The current month faced out. In the square for the date that was today was an oddly blue star and a readable this: Company 7:15

Rosalie looked at her watch and it was.

 

5

 

We’re expected, said Sanford Kinz uselessly but well in tune with being Sanford Kinz.

He, whoever, must’ve written it just now, she stated, written it after they knew we were down here again.

—Written it while running silently from the toilet while the toilet still was running audibly

—Damn it how else could

—Seek ye the truth O Roz.

She ran her finger across the writing. The marker ink didn’t smear.

She asked Sanford humbly How the hell can you just take this in stride?

—Afraid?

—How can anyone not be?

—To be afraid you have to first believe in the Thing. Right? So now what are you saying She Of The Flashing Eyeballs? You believe in this? You’re thinking this is a part of the former world of Trust and Creation? No-nah-no-no Roz. This is where the dead unborn live.

—You   !

!

!

I’m sorry, he said.

 

6

 

Rosalie knocked on the front of the fridge. She took a finger of ice from the freezer and closed her hand around it and winced. —This is all real. You can feel it.

—How do you know what I can feel?

—Sanford you told me, you practically decreed to me that all this, all this house, all these houses and parts of houses are real, materially and substantially real.

—But that was up above.

—Then why are you down here?

Well I’m happy to tell you, he said Because the very fact is, it’s sculptable material for the author in me and without me. Pure fascination. And someday after cooking and seasoning it becomes words and the words tell themselves to me and I write them down. That! is why I’m here. And yes I’ll concede and insist and even persist in insisting that there is a Here, here whatever else might be true of it.

—I’m not afraid anymore, she said, you’ve annoyed it right out of me.

And then she took in breath and WHERE THE FRIGGIN HELL ARE YOU with every bit of that breath and ending with a quiver.

Sanford said, I think you are more afraid that you have ever been in your entire but yet uncompleted life.

 

7

 

They wandered through the other rooms and halls but their wandering led to nothing. There were changes, movements,  refrozen but leaving their tracks. Living had taken place. Indeed: all the living one might have expected in a house occupied by husband and wife and son. Perhaps guests had wiped their hands on the towels.

Maybe someone died or was born here, Rosalie thought. But she found those words better left unfound.

They developed the practice of spilling out trash onto the floor, overturning baskets and culling through the little heaps of human grass clippings. And there were many things to look at. Some things were perfectly readable and ordinary. The empty crumpled butter box told what it was and who made it and its Nutrition Facts and ingredients and where it had been assembled and even included an inspirational Quality Promise and a pledge by the USDA. So also a wrapper for a bar of Dove soap. Other things though were hieroglyphed. Mailing labels, printed, handwritten, showed nothing through the jailbars of some decorative shapeography that was surely writing and said almost aloud that it was writing, but yet was incommunicative.

—As I see it, Roz, nothing that connects too definitely to the upper world is permitted to enter. Generic sorts of things, bland pieces of bland life, that’s okay. But TV is arguably and disgustingly an intimate connection. It’s rooted in a singular time of day, especially the news.

—Yes. And down here the telephones in their own way mislead you.

Mislead. Is that   ?

—You’re permitted just enough, Sanford; just exactly enough is allowed to get through to produce a lulling effect, see? What I mean? Words are not quite words, Mom and Dad are not quite Mom and Dad. The front door...it’s a door and it’s in front but it’s not really what a person means by Front Door. It

doesn’t lead out to anywhere. You go through it

and you’re still inside.

—Are toilets toilets?

Now see, look, she rejoined. That’s it, what I’m saying. A toilet is a tool. Isn’t it? It is used for things and that’s why it exists. But here it’s only, like, an outward prop, a working prop that does everything except what it’s for.

—No true humanitarian elimination?

How can we know? she fretted. We don’t see anyone, we don’t hear anyone, no one pisses as far as we can tell and it seems there’s no one to piss; that’s the message we’re given. There’s just food with parts eaten out and crumpled paper and trash and chairs that have been moved. Bed impressions new, but no one to lie in them.

—Or whatever.

—All to mislead us.

He said in agreement, but agreement taken over and steered:  —That valuable and potent first impression. And then no second impression. When we go back up that’s all we’ll have, all we’ll take away, just first impressions. And yet pardon my saying: I like that. It’s the first impressions that have life to them. A few layers under that, you get something like pulp, an undifferentiated mass of support material, hm? which is not the person at all Roz It certainly, it certainly isn’t Me.

And during this they were entering the garage which was still empty but empty in an oddly pregnant way, and they were approaching the next door, and they were looking at it.

 

8

 

Rosalie thought the small door looked like a kitchen cabinet door. It had been varnished and stood out from the wall. The handle was brass and the hinges had curlicue edges. The door  was not something carved out and covered as a utilitarian afterthought. It had been planned and talked over. It had been designed.

Sanford looked at her and then back at the door and said in that direction You open it Roz go ahead and open it.

—I don’t know...

He was already standing back to give her space and it almost seemed he expected her to act in order to save face. But she felt no great need to save a face for Sanford Kinz. He was still a pudgy blowhard blowing with words, stupid streamers of pretention. She was grateful for his presence but not especially for him.

—Go ahead. You paid a lot of unemployment money for your musculature.

She pushed her arm forward and her hand against the handle, grasped it, pulled it. They looked at the open rectangle and the shaft and the rungs. Rosalie took her flashlamp and held it over tilted sharply downward.

He asked, Carpet?

—No. White froth.

—Shaving cream.

—Insulation, our next attic.

His head joined hers and he said, No, I would say, No not an attic but only an overhead crawl space. Not overhead to us, underfoot; but overhead to something.

—Guess we won’t need the ladder.

—You’ll be glad for it as we descend to more rugged territory, descending vine of trumpets fair.

—It’s good for the world that you write prose and not poetry.

He shrugged and said The world doesn’t need my Good. He then looked at Rosalie very concertedly as if there were some kind of answer to come.

All she did was lean in through the door and grasp a rung. Her foot came next, and then she was edging down with her backpack scraping behind her.

 

9

 

She stepped down and then Sanford stepped down into a space divided by wooden support beams, a very low space in which Rosalie had to duck down a bit. Her feet sank down into the fibrous white foam almost to midcalf. Flashing the light around she saw that the foam drew up into pointed peaks everywhere like white cake frosting.

Sanford was next to her and he had to duck even more. She reflected that a man of normal male size would have had to crouch.

Don’t worry about your hair, she said.

I stopped worrying when it fled humiliated away, he replied; Not to make light of your sarcasm.

They searched around the low space with light, not taking a step, and he pronounced the obvious. —No boxes. Not used for storage.

—Just insulation.

—Foolish and useless insulation at a depth of some many yards.

What if this is the end of it after all, she thought. She was astonished to find the thought displeasing.

As if forgeting that she was not alone, she murmured What do I want anyway?

—Does this look familiar, Roz?

—Why? what do you mean

Just helping to put you on edge, he replied, just as Awake and Sing teaches. Do you feel the blade?

—And why would ‘looking familiar’ have any kind of slicing effect on me?

It happened, so you tell me, he said and it chilled Rosalie to find something in that. Did it look

familiar   ?

something nudging forward

out of her own insulation

for did not the cortex

have also what they called White Matter   ?

But it’s just your words, Sanford, she said Your damn verborhetoric, that’s what brings me up short.

—Should I apologize?

O I don’t think I know any more what apologies are, she said No it doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is going on.

—Is what’s going on?

—Don’t. I know there’s another door. This level, there’s nothing to this level. This isn’t a climax.

I can’t resist agreeing with you, he said So it seems to me we must break ranks and discover an orifice somewhere in this newfallen snowstorm.

They looked, and did.

 

10

 

The new trapdoor, in the floor of the insulation gap, the lateral crevice, was almost entirely covered with the white stuff but a single straight crackline could be made out. They kicked the stuff aside and found a square, lying in place with no hinges. It was wider, pleasingly, than the two preceding but it was difficult, fingernail-risking difficult, to get ahold of the edge. But together they lifted it off and set it aside. They looked down into square darkness.

The light revealed a throwrug some ten feet down, now dusted with bits of stray insulation.

Maybe a bedroom, Sanford said.

—Time to use the ladder.

—The Professional Ladder used by professionals in the course of some unnamed profession.

Help me undo it, she asked.

Free of her back it was unfolded and they slid it to suitable length. They carefully let it down until it touched and then hooked the top to the low sill of the aperture and screwed the C-clamps to their most desperate clawful.

Ought to hold pretty well, Sanford pronounced and then added We’re light as dandelion feather.

She tested the ladder with a push. —Well. Here I go.

—High ho low ho, down we go. Don’t worry Roz it’s all dark down there.

—In a bedroom and what’s sleeping in the bed?

—Who’s been sleeping in my

—Steady me.

She descended and he followed and with little breath she rotated the flashlamp. It was a bedroom, 1970’s vintage but a little tackier than the one above, Rosalie thought. Not untended, not exactly that, but reflective of shabbier tastes. The wide bed had a worn throw across it and she was sure, she knew, it was the bed of a woman who had kept the woven thing as a souvenir of blunted childhood. Poor thing, she thought.

The room was cluttered with pieces of maple furniture, well used. Some pieces matched; a child’s furniture set retained twenty, thirty years and embarrassed to be thus displayed in the wrong time and the wrong room. There was a small computer and keyboard shoved into the corner of a desk and, Sanford noted, unplugged.

She’s out of it, he said This occupant is not only two stories underground but unattached to the world and I find that a delicious paradox.

Rosalie touched a maple bookshelf with a row of cryptic, unreadable juvenile books and five small brass turtles. —I feel something for her, she said; her life is small.

—Her literary choices are limited.

Circumscribed, she corrected; isn’t that the word?

—Depends on what you want to say Roz.

—Don’t make fun of me. She’s not old but older now, getting there, wherever There may be.

—The clock runneth.

No one believes that biological clock crap now Sanford, she retorted If she’s unmarried it has nothing to do with time. No, sadness; that’s it. You get all shrinkwrapped in sadness. Plastic sadness, and who can see out? Or in.

They were huddled and whispering. —We archaeologists draw a great deal from a great little, he said.

Rosalie allowed: —Just my made-up story

—No

O no Roz

Your made-up story? No, mine.

There’s nothing else here, she declared, nothing else here and no one, not in this little bedroom. But it’s not abandoned.

—It’s resting.

—Napping for a few hours, a day, then she’ll be back in it.

The room door was closed but not quite latched. They extinguished the lamps and urged it open gently. It made a tiny groan.

 

11

 

A dark hallway ensued, no pictures, a small bedroom, a large bedroom, and then a doored entry into a sunroom fronted in big glass half around.

But there is no sun, Rosalie said. Her light reflected back from the glass and then, behind, the dirt.

Sanford brought his eyes up to the glass and peered like X-rays. —It’s denser. More compact by pressure.

He turned and said to her Go deep enough Roz and it turns to stone.

—Molten lava.

—The crust, the refined and delicate crust, well brought up, turns to mantle further down; and mantle is a crude mannerless thing that couldn’t care less about the crust, much less the sun. And then after much penetration and descent there is a change and all around you is metal, mostly iron, which is the core, a Moon living in the middle of the earth, very confined and unknowing.

Take away the cheese slices that come right off your lips  Sanford and it’s what I remember from a sixth grade book, she said But yeah it’s compacting and densening.

I’m feeling densened, he said.

Rosalie tapped on the glass. —Like all the others. There’s still a little space on the other side. The earth doesn’t press inward. The glass just stands its ground.

He also tapped. —No. It never will, will it, as far down as we go. Wonderful window glass that never gives in. And it washes itself.

No, she said, someone washes it.

 

12

 

There was a swing-lounge of green canvas very worn and torn and ragged-edged with some small pillows with yarny fringe. There was a little table of faux wrought iron next to it, with a round glass top, rippled, and on the glass top was a thumbed magazine.

She looked at the magazine. —This is Brad Pitt.

She held it up for him to see.

—Yep. That is a picture of Brad Pitt.

There were letters and words all over, big screaming letters, little neat letters, tiny roundbacked letters by nature withdrawn. All these letters were herded into little bunches, little clots separated by spaces. They were words, headlines, logo. In pretense, in prospect, words: not in reality.

She flopped it back down and then pointed. —Glasses, tumblers have been set here on the tabletop.

—And I see a few crumbs, aren’t they crumbs? on the glass.

Rosalie said The woman sits here alone a great deal and looks out through the glass wall and what can she see?

—Compressed dirt.

No, Rosalie corrected him. —What she sees when the lights are on is her reflection.

Mm do you think so? he said, and she felt him sly.

 

13

 

The light for the room, if ever it was so, was a porchlight bulb near the door, which had been sometime torn into place. The flipswitch was around the sill on the inside wall, the hallway wall. Sanford bent a wrist around the edge of the door and Rosalie heard the flack of it. The sunroom remained dark, dead of light but not dead in other ways. All the serial houses, unoccupied for this interval of their penetration by two foreign objects, were nothing of crushed velvet, of coffins, of tombs. If the houses were sad here and about they were not grieving. There was a resonance of life. They only napped, comfortably, as the two from the sunworld probed and shoved inward, downward. Did they mind, the houses? Did they ache from this violation of the lower tract? No Rosalie thought, but uncertainly; no, they waited for this, for us, for me. I’m from above. I’m from something they never knew but suspected, their goddess down from heaven.

She felt the weight of responsibility, of moral gravity. Of course she knew it was a foolish gravity.

No power, Sanford interrupted, still no circuit for lights down here.

—Except. The little LED panels work and they don’t blink.

—And of course other things. Refrigerators, Roz. What if we plugged in a vacuum?

She dismissed the idea. —Let’s try to do four houses before noon.

—A cursory tour? But I see the point Roz inasmuch as this hanging necklace is built of pearls not so very different one from another.

But we won’t miss a thing really Sanford, she said to him Not really a thing, and you know why? because I think we can give up any notion of randomness to our safari. What we see next is as carefully set up as where we go next, down. You think that too don’t you? All a setup, just a long series of painted screens

Soft partitions, he said.

—Like the walls of the break room at Trust. Just those temporary carpeted kinds of vertical things on little flat feet.

—Standing to divide.

I don’t know, she continued, I feel like I’m breaking through layers, room to room, house to house, ripping through these paper-bag things...

—And finding lunch in refrigerators all prepared.

—Everything is prepared. It’s all in place and our trail, the trail we have to follow, is set down in place like a monorail line but we’re not to see it. If we saw it

—We would die.

—We would kill ourselves.

Oh I don’t know, he said Really I think it most likely that you would kill me and only then yourself. Doncha think Roz?

—Would you want to die down here?

—I wouldn’t care to die down here but I wouldn’t much mind being dead down here. Dead people get let down anyway. Down here would be an attainment: like finally being top of the heap but, you know, in an upside down sense. Mm? Nice, but I don’t care to have to die to get there. The honor is muffled. No one knows, what honor in that?

And as they thus talked they ambled along through other rooms and nooks and places that seemed to have all of life but the living. Some things did blink in fact: tiny red beads on smoke detectors. Sanford pointed out that they were infused by batteries and whined when the batteries were about to fall silent. So they were made. If they had been made.

At this Rosalie stopped suddenly with a hand on a wall of dull yellow. —What if there’s a burglar alarm, an intruder sensor?

—Household defense!

—Electric eyes, infrared things, motion sensors, little deals that radiate sound that you can’t hear but makes them respond like hanging bats.

By your own instinct, he said And by your fretful theorizing: if they have become alert to us, if our presence is known, they won’t rush in with guns and bayonets, no, they’ll be pleased that all is proceeding on the monorail track and know to stay away.

—Yes. That’s right. They just live, live themselves away with just plain ordinary cares and bliss, right up to the click of whatever trap door lets us down and in. Then in that instant they go away. And when we leave they come flooding back in. For some reason I think of them as steam jetting out of a teakettle.

But with no whistle, he smiled.

 

14

 

They returned from the sortie and walked along into a small space, called sometimes a breakfast nook. Small: a table more like a double TV tray, but not foldable, of wood, with a pad covering the top. On the table pad, in front of a chair with cracked limegreen plastic fabric bursting with white puffery, were two little puckered wads, dotted over with tiny dimples.

No formal linens, said the man Just the paperest of towels, absorptive no doubt.

—Equally effective at their task.

—Efficiency is Queen.

He extended a finger and rolled one, then the other. —Mm grease, bacon? yes bacon. Butter. Syrup, I think we have here evidence of breakfast.

It was too sad and spare to contemplate for long, too much like naked chickenbones on a plate by a sink. It seemed to Rosalie that her companion was overly of good cheer and underly of tender sensibility.

He gathered what she was thinking. —This is not tragic, Roz o Roz No this is nothing to weep over, I’m assuming you don’t classify yourself as an angel despite your countenance. So be mortal and unfeel, unfeel, for the duration.

—Why do it then? Any of this. Anything.

—To exhibit your invulnerability.

I’m exploring, said Roz. —I don’t know what you are.

—Oh now, exploring too, it’s just that what I’m exploring is your exploration.

—As material.

—Can’t use myself up, can I? No self, who is left to write of it?

Sanford, this isn’t writing, she said.

Of course it is, he replied All of it is.

She said: Some of it is illustration.

 

15

 

Little to say of the kitchen, called a kitchenette, by nature a thing of which there can be little to say but it seemed to Roz much pathos.

There was an old type dial telephone, aqua, squatting on the tiled counter. She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear for a long second.

Dial tone, noted Sanford Nice and loud for something that is, frankly, interred.

No, she said.

It’s not a dial tone

it’s just a sort of sound,

it’s a hollow sound

like

 

O I know what it’s like, it’s like that thing where you have water in a crystal goblet and wet your finger and run it round on the edge and it

And it sings, he completed for her Yes that’s the term used by true connoiseurs. And may I say innocently, you must put your dainty finger in your mouth and wet it by your own warm saliva.

—Not a dial tone, it just wants to be a dial tone.

He nodded at the phone:

—Try it.

—I don’t have anyone to call.

You always have me, he smiled. —But Roz, I know I don’t count.

Some other phone, some other time, she said clattering down the receiver There’ll be more houses Sanford and I’m pretty sure in each one all the way down there’ll be phones and phony dial tones.

—Sure, and thus there will be singing. We’ll be sung to, down into the earth. Kinda neat. But you have to pick up the receiver and hold it to your ear.

She frowned and reminded Sanford not to turn every word toward things healthy but vulgar and in any case irrelevant to the present journey.

 

16

 

There was no attached garage to explore. Rosalie envisioned a detached garage out there somewhere in the dirt.

Or the car could be parked on the driveway, she mused aloud.

—Covered with earth.

Does it seem pointless? she asked him.

—To be a late model car buried deep underground on a parking pad likewise buried within steps of a kitchen door that can’t be opened as it too is buried?

I don’t think she goes out much, Rosalie said.

She realized, poignantly, something that had been a fact for quite some time, a fact far back in the long cascade of facts, now meekly asking her to pay attention.

The fact was that she no longer asked of the world that it make sense. It would be what it would be and whatever comforting words she had been given were simply lies. Done with kindness, though, she thought.

 

17

 

We’re not done, she told Sanford. There are more levels.

—I concur.

But they had found no door, no connecting shaft, as of yet. They wandered back through a living room that loomed horizontally, too big a room for this house, to big a living room for a dull sad woman who didn’t live much, furnished too small and too cheap, and on the other side was an open arch into a short hall with, at the end, a door.

Behind the door was a walk-in closet with narrow shelves up and down the walls and, yes, a trap door in the floor.

Sanford spoke: That’s all we’ll see Roz just square little wooden doors, maybe some carpeted, over square holes and shafts. No grand staircases leading down. The houses are not floors in a hotel. Suburban dwellings stand separately. In this instance the separation is vertical, but that’s not a detail worth stumbling over.

She held the disk of light on it. The floorboards were varnished and clean and reflected the light up onto Sanford’s blurby face and made blackness stretch up the wall behind him.

Miles to go before we sleep, she cliched without enthusiasm. —Unless we’re sleeping now.

I know I’m not, he smiled in the wash of light.

 

[there will be more]

 

Vertical Suburb © 2009 Scott Dickerson.

All Rights Reserved.